Category Archives: Chanukah

Mikeitz – Small, Not Inconsequential

Yosef, who reaches the height of temporal power in this week’s parshah, was originally presented as unimpressive, even vain, the favorite of his father but the lesser, at least as they saw things, of his brothers. He tells on them, doesn’t think it unwise to share his seemingly self-aggrandizing dreams to his family and spends time attending to his superficial appearance. The Midrash refers to him as the katan shebish’vatim, the “small one” of the tribes.

How misleading all that is began to become evident when, in last week’s parshah, Yosef, made part of an Egyptian nobleman’s home, summons superhuman fortitude to refuse his benefactor’s wife’s adulterous entreaties. The Gemara (Yoma, 35b) holds him up as the ultimate model for the ages of resisting temptation.

The hidden potential power of the “small” and “unimpressive” is a timely thought at the time of Jewish year when we read about Yosef.

I’m always struck by the contrast between, on the one hand, the garish, multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes each winter and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. 

Chanukah is often portrayed as a “minor” holiday. It is indeed only rabbinic in nature, but its deep power is evident from its treatment in classical Jewish philosophical and mystical works.

And, echoing “small” Yosef’s attainment of the epithet “tzaddik,” for his personal fortitude, the events recalled on “minor” Chanukah were about fortitude, too — the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance, and resist an enticing and dominant non-Jewish culture.

Small can be consequential. Isn’t that, in the end, the essence of rabbim biyad me’atim

Chanukah celebrates how all the alien firestorms of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flame of Jewish commitment. Those empires may have flared mightily, but they disappeared without a trace. Their luster was mere tinsel. 

Yosef seemed unimpressive; he was anything but. And our small, flickering lights are eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Myth of Mundanity

The thought experiment begins by asking us to ponder a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but in which no grain or vegetation has ever grown. Long departed relatives routinely reappear and, presumably, funerals are au revoirs, not goodbyes. Food is procured exclusively from non-vegetative sources.

And the fantasy continues with the sudden appearance of a stranger who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants look on curiously, regarding the act as no different from burying a stone, but are shocked when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned. They are even more flabbergasted to witness its eventual development into a full-fledged plant, bearing fruit – and, even more astonishing – seeds of its own.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler painted the bizarre panorama, and, as it happens, the conjured scenario has pertinence to Chanukah.

The point Rav Dessler was making was the fundamental idea that there really is no inherent, objective difference between what we call nature and what we call miraculous.  We simply use the former word to refer to that to which we are well accustomed; and the latter, for things that we have never before experienced.  All there is, in the end, Rav Dessler concludes, is Hashem’s will, expressed most commonly in nature.

Yesh chachma bagoyim, “there is wisdom among the nations.” The celebrated essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson famously conveyed much the very same idea, when he wrote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

The star-filled sky, Emerson asked us to realize, is seen as non-miraculous only –only – because it appears every night.

Famed physicist Paul Davies put the thought starkly and strikingly: “The very notion of physical law,” he wrote, “is a theological one.”

What does all that have to do with Chanukah?

The chag, of course, commemorates the Macabeeim’s routing of the Greek Seleucid fighters who sought to impose heathenism on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. The Maccabeeim managed to rout their enemy, recover Yerushalayim and rededicate the defiled Beis Hamikdash.  Only one vial of tahor, undefiled, oil, though, for use in the menorah was discovered in the debris. It was enough to burn for only one day, yet, once kindled, lasted for a full eight, yielding Chanukah’s observance of eight nights of candle-lighting.

Why, the Beis Yosef famously asked, is Chanukah observed for eight days, when the miracle of the oil was really only evident over seven – since there was sufficient recovered oil for one day?

Many answers have been suggested. One, though, offered by, among others, Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, is based on Rabbi Dessler’s (and Emerson’s, and Professor Davies’) contention.

Seven of Chanukah’s days, goes this approach, indeed commemorate the miracle that the menorah’s flames burned without fuel.  The eighth day, though, is a celebration unto itself, commemorating the fact – no less of a miracle to perceptive minds — that oil burns at all. It is an acknowledgment of the Divine essence of nature itself.

Which poignantly echoes the Gemara’s account of how the daughter of Rabi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before Shabbos that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbos lamps, and began to panic.  Rabi Chanina, who vividly perceived divinity in all and, the Talmud recounts, as a result often merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar to burn.”

Which, in that case, is precisely, the Gemara recounts, what happened. Vinegar doesn’t usually burn, of course, unless it’s Rabbi Chanina’s. But the fact that oil burns, for all of us, remains a miracle, if a common one.

Sifrei nistar portray the small Chanukah flames as leaking spiritual enlightenment into the world. Perhaps the realization of the miraculous hidden in the mundane is part of what we are meant to gain from the lights.

Heading into the dismal darkness of what some coarse folks might think of as a “G-d-forsaken” deep winter, the Chanukah lights remind us that nothing, not even nature, is ever forsaken by G-d, nothing devoid of divinity.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Still, Small, Defiant Lights

I’m always struck by the contrast this time of year between, on the one hand, the garish multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. I think there may be cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major non-Jewish holiday season.

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed by some Jewish clergy on radio programs and in newspapers as nothing but a celebration of religious freedom (or even, bizarrely, as some sort of salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the neiros Chanukah is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Gemara to the sifrei Kabbalah to the works of Chassidus. The celebration is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabim was less the Seleucid empire as a military power than what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of our mesorah, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that the Torah considers unacceptable. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” overbearing secular philosophy. And so, the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabim succeeded in preserving the mesorah, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when the larger Jewish world, l’daavoneinu, is so assimilated, and intermarriage so rampant, nothing could be more important for American Jews than Chanukah’s message.

Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating “converts” – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish, or Jewish-style, children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by people who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be happening on its own. Where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

Poignant meaning shines forth from the Bais Hamikdash’s menorah’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, of course, is Torah, the preserver of Klal Yisrael.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of that symbol of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids, it is related, had forbidden not only various fundamental mitzvos and hanhagos, they also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood, consciously or otherwise, is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidels and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling that menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of Klal Yisrael over the millennia. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It doesn’t just recall the Bais Hamikdash that was rededicated bayamim hahem, but calls on us to rededicate ourselves baz’man hazeh.

We do that by keeping ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and resisting the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put the dreidels away and open the sefarim.

And with our determination, our mitzvos and our limud haTorah, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

The great and powerful empires of history flared mightily but then disappeared without a trace. Their lights were bright but artificial.

Ours, small as they may be, are eternal.

Body and Soul

It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.

“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.  And your stereo speakers are the music.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.

The idea of the  neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human  neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the  neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the  neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.

Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a  neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.

Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.

© 2017 Hamodia

A Window into the Past

It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia

Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah.  The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed.  Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs.  In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all the Jewish holidays and fast days over the course of a year.

Ms. Pogrebin recently produced her Chanukah-themed entry in the series and, with remarkable candor, reported that her research has led her to the understanding that Chanukah is really about the victory of Jews faithful to the Jewish religious heritage over those who were willing to jettison it.

“I know it’s too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant, and the rest of us for the Hellenized,” she writes. “But implicit in so many rabbinic Hanukkah teachings is that we’re in danger of losing our compass, losing our difference – abandoning the text and traditions that make us Jews.”

Then she continues in a personal vein:  “And that sense of alarm makes me look harder at where I fall on the spectrum before Hanukkah begins this year.”

Ms. Pogrebin goes on to quote Jewish writer Arthur Kurzweil as maintaining that Chanukah “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word” – that is to say, intolerance of assimilation to the larger culture.

He adds an analogy: “Baseball has four bases. You can invent a game with five bases; maybe it’s even a better game. But it’s not baseball.” Judaism, he explains, “is not whatever you want it to be.”

She goes on to note that it was hard for her “not to see the echoes of Maccabee-Hellenist tension this very month,” citing her failure to enlist traditionally Orthodox participants in a panel discussion she was moderating, the one to which she invited me.  Having requested, and received, my permission to do so, she then quoted my response to her invitation.

Of course she finds reassuring voices, like that of Conservative rabbi Rachel Ain, who tells her “I wear tefillin every morning. They’re black and what all the men wear. I find it so powerful. I also wear a kippah, but it’s a beaded kippah and I have a tallit that was made for me – it’s green and purple and blue – and it’s very feminine and very halachic… Hellenizing? I say it’s innovating.”

But Ms. Pogrebin is a tenacious reporter, and cannot ignore the other, more Jewishly grounded, testimonies she received.

And it personally pains her.  In words like Mr. Kurzweil’s and mine, she hears an echo of “countless voices in the observant world who would likely dismiss my level of Judaism as perilously assimilated.” And she is, understandably, distressed by that thought.

“Hanukkah,” she realizes, “celebrates those who refused to blend in.”

“Where,” therefore, she wonders, “does that leave those of us who, to one degree or another, already have?”

To my lights, Ms. Pogrebin is too hard on herself.  She’s no Hellenist. She may be entangled with the larger culture in which she lives – so are, to one or another degree, all too many observant Jews.  But she doesn’t reject the Jewish religious tradition, as did the Hellenists of old.  In fact, she has embarked on a quest to better understand our mesorah, and seems rightly suspicious of the blandishments of those who proffer “innovations” to Jewish religious praxis.

Observance, to be sure, is central to Yiddishkeit.  But a heartfelt undertaking by someone who wasn’t raised to be Torah-observant to learn more about observance, is hardly the enterprise of a Hellenist.  It’s the hallmark, I’d say, of a Jew.

© 2014 Hamodia

In Those Days, In This Time

The following essay was written for Haaretz and appeared on its website recently under a different title.  I share it here with that paper’s permission.

There’s a striking irony in the fact that Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays among American Jews.

Cynics have contended that it’s Chanukah’s proximity to the Christian winter holiday, with all the latter’s ubiquitous glitz, baubles and musical offerings, that has elevated Chanukah – seen by some as a “minor” celebration, since it’s a  post-Biblical commemoration – to the pantheon (if a Greek word is appropriate here) of popular Jewish observances.

In fact, though, Chanukah is not minor at all; a wealth of Jewish mystical literature enwraps it, and laws (albeit rabbinical in origin) govern the nightly lighting of the holiday’s candles and the recital of Al Hanisim (“For the miracles”) in our prayers over Chanukah’s eight days.

As to whether many American Jews are enamoured of Frosty the Snowman, well, it’s an open question.  Me, I prefer my winter nights silent.

But onward to the irony, which is not only striking but significant.

I recall hearing a Reform rabbi on a public radio program a couple of years ago extolling Chanukah as a celebration of “pluralism” and “tolerance.”  After all, the Greek-Syrian Seleucid enemy of the Jews at the time of the Chanukah miracle, he explained, were intolerant of Jewish religious practices.  Well, yes, but the Jewish rebellion wasn’t aimed at establishing some sort of Middle-Eastern First Amendment but rather to fiercely defend the study and practice of the Torah.  And to rid the Temple of idols.  Judaism has no tolerance at all for some things, idolatry prime among them.

What is more, the Jewish uprising also – and here we close in on the irony – was to counter the influence on Jews of a foreign culture.

To the Jewish religious leaders who established the observance of Chanukah, a greater threat than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty laws and Torah-study, they held out to Jews the sweet but poison fruit of Greek culture, and some Jews devoured it whole.

The enemy, in other words, didn’t just install a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in some Jewish hearts.  And Chanukah stands for the fight against that attitude.

It’s easy to dismiss the ancient Greek soap-opera that passed for divine doings, the gods who were described as acting like the lowest of men.  It isn’t likely that many Jews (or Greeks, for that matter) really believed the tales of celestial hijinks that passed for spirituality at the time.

But the ancient Greeks had something much more enticing to offer. Hellas celebrated the physical world; it developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, at least as a physical specimen. It philosophized about life and love.

But much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man, yielding us the words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all Greek in origin.

Western society today revolves around pleasure too.  It adopts the language of “freedom” and “rights” to disguise the fact, but it’s a pretty transparent fig leaf.

To be sure, most Jews in the U.S. remain stubbornly, laudably, proud of their Jewishness.  But, all the same, they have been culturally colonized by a sort of contemporary Hellenism, American style.

Which bring us – if you haven’t already guessed – to the irony.

Because Chanukah addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance (admirable though those concepts may be in their proper places), but rather Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by contemporary American Jews.

And its message stands right in front of them, in the flickering flames.

The “miracle of the lights,” Jewish tradition teaches, was not arbitrary.  Abundant meaning for the Jewish ages shone from the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil.  For light, our tradition further teaches, means Torah, its study and its observance – not “contemporized,” and not edited to conform to the Zeitgeist, but as it has been handed down over the centuries.

When American Jews light their Chanukah candles they may not consider that the holiday they are acknowledging speaks most poignantly to them.

But they should.

© 2013 Haaretz

For older Chanukah-themed essays just click on “Chanukah” in “Categories.”

 

Shedding Light on Anti-Semitism

A sampling of recent events – a senior Turkish official’s insinuation that Israel is behind the Wikileaks scandal; Iran’s unlocking of a website for devotees of Nazi Germany; a neo-Nazi’s spray-painting of swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs on headstones in a suburban Chicago Jewish cemetery; the brutal beating of a Jewish school teacher in the Chassidic Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn – is a timely thing to ponder as we head toward Chanukah.

To understand what all the above “spirit of the season” has to do with the Jewish time of year, one has to move beyond bemoaning anti-Semitism, toward understanding it.

It’s not an easy task.  Irrational Jew-hatred’s astounding resiliency and its purveyors’ impressive creativity are baffling.  And anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, indeed millennia.  So, too, though, has been Jewish tradition’s take on the matter.

Classical Jewish thought’s approach to the question of anti-Semitism may have been most pithily rendered by the renowned Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik of Brisk (1820-1892), who wrote: “Know that the more that Jews minimize the ‘apartness’ that the Torah mandates through Torah study and the observance of the commandments, the more G-d allows hatred [within others] to bring about the necessary outcome – that the Jewish people remain a people apart.”

It says much about how far we Jews have drifted from the fundamentals of our spiritual heritage that such a thought strikes so many as outrageous.  How, they ask, could our attempt to blend harmoniously into larger society and to jettison religious observances increase anti-Semitism?

Yet that is precisely what the Torah itself repeatedly and explicitly predicts (as in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), what authentic Jewish religious leaders have always maintained, and what alone explains the reality around us.  Once our initial umbrage at the idea subsides, what remains are the troubling but telling facts: Despite the Holocaust, and compulsory education in liberal values, and interfaith efforts, and Jews’ hearty embrace of the cultures in which they live – we are as hated as ever.  Perhaps more than ever.

That is the point.  Much as we may squirm, we Jews are meant to be “a people apart.”  And if we try to be “just like all the nations,” in the Torah’s disapproving words, G-d allows others to remind us of our role.

Which brings us to Chanukah.

Some contemporary Jewish writers – even, sadly, some clergy – seem intent on minimizing the significance of the Jewish holiday of lights, claiming it is but a minor affair, artificially magnified by its proximity in the calendar to non-Jewish celebratory days.  Nothing could be more misleading.  Chanukah, to be sure, is not a Biblical holiday; it is based on an historical occurrence that took place after Biblical times.  But it is the focus of a substantial amount of Jewish thought and lore, particularly in the mystical tradition.

What motivates the would-be Chanukah-diminishers, I suspect, is their discomfort with Chanukah’s elemental message.

Because according to Jewish tradition, the victory celebrated on Chanukah was only superficially about the routing of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire’s forces from Judea.  More essentially, it was about the routing of the Greek assimilationist inroads into Jewish life.  To the rabbis who established the holiday, a greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals.

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty and the study of Torah, they convinced some Jews to embrace their world-view.  They installed not only a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in Jewish hearts.  And Chanukah stands for the uprooting of that attitude, for the recognition that Jews are, and must be, different.

Which is why Chanukah’s observance does not involve a special feast – as does Purim’s, when the threat against us was physical – but rather only the lighting, and gazing at, the ethereal light of candles.  The battle of Chanukah was, in its essence, a spiritual one.  Light represents Torah.  And Torah – its study and its observance – is the essence of the Jewish people.  “A bit of light,” as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, “banishes much darkness.”

And so, as we light the Chanukah candles, watch their flames and consider events both ancient and current – “in those days, at this time” – we might give some thought, too, to both the spiritual state of the Jewish world today and to how widely, insanely we are hated.

And ponder the message of the lights flickering before us.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran