Category Archives: Chanukah

The Candle Within

It would make a good Chelm story.  The resident philosopher sagely announces that since he can’t perceive his own face directly he must not have one.  Besides, as anyone can plainly see, what seems to be his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The thought is inspired by “materialist” psychologists, who lament the persistence of the idea of “dualism,” the belief that human beings possess both physical and spiritual components.  “The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal,” asserts Professor Paul Bloom of Yale, for example.  “They emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Another would-be re-educator of the backward masses is Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who advises us 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 back at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the latter must define the former.

Sometimes, though, deep intuitions are right and interpretations of evidence (or the lack of it) wrong.  And scientists, as the noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck 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.”

Were the contemporary dualism debate merely academic, we might just ignore it.  Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness – the ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of formidable import.

Negating the concept of a soul – what makes human beings special and requires us to take responsibility for our choices – yields deep repercussions in broader society.  It bears impact on a slew of contemporary social issues, from animal rights to abortion; from marriage’s meaning to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life or a life no longer “useful”; no reason to consider any way of life less proper than any other.  Neither would we be justified to consider any insect our inferior, nor bound to any ethical or moral system.  Put succinctly, a society that denies the soul-idea is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

The game’s zero-sum: Either we humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, sublimated by our souls and the responsibilities that attend them; or we are not.  A soul-denying world might craft a utilitarian social contract.  But right and wrong there could have no true meaning at all.

The materialist notion is not novel.  De-spiritualizers of humanity’s essence served as the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

But the first “materialists” may have been the ancient Greeks, who placed capricious gods on the pedestal where, today, professors lay gray matter.

Hellas celebrated the physical world.  The ancient Greeks developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, too, but only as a physical specimen.

Accordingly, much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man.  The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

And so it followed almost logically that the culture that was Greece saw the Jewish fixation on the divine as an affront.  The Sabbath denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; circumcision implied that the body is imperfect; the Jewish calendar imparted holiness where there is only mundane periodicity; and modesty or any sort of limits on indulgence in physical pleasure were unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings, evidencing the basest of inclinations.  And when Hellenist philosophers spoke of the “soul,” they referred only to what we would call the personality or intellect.  The idea of a self that can make meaningful choices and merit eternal reward was indigestible to the Greek world-view.

As indispensable as it is to the Jewish one, which insists that humans are unique within creation, and that we are charged with living special lives; that our souls are eternal and that what we do makes a difference.

Chanukah celebrates the crucial difference between the ideals that embodied Hellenism and those that animate the Jewish people.

In recent years it has become fashionable among the ignorant to dismiss Chanukah as a “minor” festival on the Jewish calendar.  Anyone familiar with the centuries-old and voluminous mystical, conceptual and halachic Chanukah literature knows better

The Hellenism/Judaism philosophical battle continues to this day and its stakes are high.  Gazing at the Chanukah candles this year, we might want to recall the words (Proverbs, 20:27) of King Solomon, the wisest of all men: “A flame of G-d is the soul of man.”

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran


The Art of Menschlichkeit

A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House.  No news there; ‘tis the season, so to speak.  The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn’t political.  It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes’ invitations to this year’s White House Chanukah party.  A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event.  I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn’t find it offensive in any way.  According to the New York Post, though, someone – although unwilling to share his or her name – did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it’s here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish.  Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America?  Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores – and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them?  (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country’s participation in the 2001 Durban “Racism” conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia?

Does he not recall the President’s 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say – that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror?   Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to “match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror,” that “nothing less is acceptable”?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes.  To visit the White House.  In honor of Chanukah.  It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation.  This one’s cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: “Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork.”

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call “menschlichkeit” (literally, “acting like a human being”; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post’s informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party.  I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip.  Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President’s hand no longer persists.  And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House’s days are numbered – and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, “I think you should go.”   Then, after I asked “Why?” he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

“To say ‘thank you’.”

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Nature of Nature

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground.   The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing – most astonishing of all – seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous.  We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced.  All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

And it is a thought, too, that, according to several renowned Jewish thinkers, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long?  True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil.  But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggest those sources: Seven of Chanukah’s days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum’s flames burned without oil.  The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta’anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic.  Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d’s hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.”

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah’s eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation.  The final day of the holiday – this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day – is known as “Zos Chanukah,” after the Torah passage beginning “Zos chanukas hamizbe’ach” (“This is the dedication of the altar”) read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier.  Although Rosh Hashana was the year’s day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later “time-stones” of the period of G-d’s judgment of our actions are cited as well.  One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot.  And the final one, according to the sources, is “Zos Chanukah.”

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the “supernature” in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane.  For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d?  And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is “close” to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d’s will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a “G-d-forsaken winter,” know that, still and all, as always, “His glory fills the universe.”

© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran

My White House Chanuka

 If you should ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed classical string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” you can only be one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

The annual event hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for a few score representatives of the American Jewish community is a tangible expression of the good will the First Couple have demonstrated to a multitude of the nation’s religious groups, Jews among them.  Whether one considers President Bush II’s domestic or foreign policies principled (as I, for the most part, do) or preposterous, the President must be given high points for his reaching out to Americans of faith.

Among the Jewish groups to whom the White House extended invitations to this year’s Chanukah celebration, which took place on December 18, the third day of the holiday, was Agudath Israel of America, and I was honored to attend as one of its representatives.  It was a pleasure to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity that doesn’t present itself as often as I’d like.  And it was a privilege to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush.  I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my sincere and solemn blessings, thereby disappointing my 13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request a Presidential decree that the school week be reduced to three days.

The event, true to its Jewish nature, was awash in food, all of it under strict Orthodox supervision, produced in a White House kitchen fully “koshered” for the event.  As another observant participant observed to me when I greeted him, “This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country.”  It was indeed hard to not be impressed.

But the high point of my White House visit was neither the Presidential receiving line nor the array of kosher victuals (not realizing that the catering would be adhering to the strictest standards, I had earlier in the day had the regrettable foresight to stop in a local kosher eatery, and was hardly hungry).

Nor was the best part of the event seeing a dear friend from my yeshiva days for the first time in three decades.  Now an anesthesiologist in the Midwest, he explained that he had received his invitation to the White House gathering as the result of his wife’s “open house” policy for students at a university near their home.  A frequent Shabbat guest of theirs several years ago had eventually gone on to become a White House liaison to the Jewish community, and wanted to show his erstwhile Shabbat hosts that he hadn’t forgotten them.  My friend himself, he reminded me, had spent more than one Shabbat in my own parents’ similarly open home thirty years earlier.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington took place before I even entered the White House.  I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form, as they waited for the security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Sitting there in the descending darkness, I felt a twinge of melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah.  I had made the necessary arrangements from the perspective of Jewish religious law; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of my children on my behalf.  But still I was troubled by being so far from them.

I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with tiny flames its truest symbol.  And here I was, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration – albeit of Chanukah – while the small if potent points of fire created on my behalf were flickering 300 miles away, invisible to me.

It was then that my cellphone clamored for attention.   Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife.  She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance.  A more accurate thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a park bench outside the grand Presidential residence.  To anyone passing by, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard and a broad smile, animatedly singing into a phone.

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran


The Anti-Olympic Flame

All the pomp and glitter that attended the Athens Olympics this past summer, all the celebrated athletes and venerated ideals, obscured the true dark heart of the Games.

For although the modern Olympics are presented as a paragon of good-natured competition and a vehicle for global unity, their roots, stretching  back to the ancient Greek Olympics, are gnarled and ugly.

In their original incarnation, the Games were fiercely xenophobic; only Greek-speakers needed apply.  And their competitions could be beastly and bloody; the original Olympians were single-mindedly focused on victory, even at the cost of limb or life.  That should not surprise anyone familiar with ancient Greek culture; in Hellas, death was an acceptable, even noble, outcome of competitive displays of physical prowess.  The ancient Greeks did not subscribe to our contemporary notions of moral good or bad; those were bequeathals to the world from the Jews, whose beliefs puzzled the Greeks, and whose own rejection of Hellenism, as it happens, is at the core of what the Jewish holiday Chanukah commemorates.

What is surprising, and depressing, is that the modern Games, for all their life-affirming pageantry and paeans about the “spirit of friendship,” possess a moral shabbiness all their own.

True, they may no longer feature events like the pankration, a form of extreme fighting that regularly saw competitors maimed or killed.  And the primitive desire to utterly crush one’s opponent that animated ancient Greek competitors is at least somewhat sublimated these days.  But the egotism and amorality are still apparent; as is the antipathy for Jews.

Some still alive remember the summer Games of 1936 in Berlin, which Adolph Hitler exploited to help promote the Third Reich’s image.

Many more recall the murder of 11 Israelis by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics – and how International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage boldly declared, after a one-day suspension of the competition, that “the Games must go on!”

This year, as it happened, there was a memorial service for those 11 slaughtered Israelis, at the Israeli ambassador’s residence.  Addressing the small gathering, the widow of one of the murdered athletes asked why, considering that the “whole Olympic family” had been attacked by the terrorists in 1972, the participants were gathered in a private home and not at an IOC-sponsored memorial in the presence of all the Olympians.

The answer was not supplied, but it is likely not unrelated to the fact that when Olympic federation representatives gathered in Kuala Lumpur two years earlier to prepare for the Athens Games, 199 flags were flown, including the one adopted by the Palestinians, but Israel’s was not among them.

Relevant, too, was the unpleasantness of Arash Miresmaeili, the Iranian judo wrestler who had been scheduled this year to compete with an Israeli but who, it seems, stuffed himself with food during the days before the bout so he would be disqualified for his weight class.  Quoted in an Iranian newspaper as having “refused” to compete with an Israeli, he was awarded $115,000 by Iran for “sacrificing” a gold medal. The IOC, for its part, pretended that the entire episode was just the unfortunate saga of an athlete who neglected to count his calories.

There is no dearth of Israel-hatred these days in the world, nor of what most of it really is: Jew-hatred.  But the particular Jew-focused animus that has accompanied the Olympics in modern times might serve as well as a reminder of something more fundamental: how diametric the essence of the Games is to the Jewish faith.

The Greeks’ highest ideal was physical accomplishment; the Jews’, moral.   In contrast to the Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” – “swifter, higher, stronger” – the Jewish credo was a simple, hopeful “holier.”

The Hellenist worldview placed the human being on the highest pedestal.  Nature was perfect and the human body and mind were its highest expressions.  What “gods” were paid homage in Hellas were but actors in a sort of celestial soap-opera.  The idea of an ultimate Creator, and that He expects self-control from His free-willed creations, was seen by the Greeks as just so much Jewish pollution.

In the second century before the Common Era, the Seleucid Empire sought to impose Greek belief on its subjects, including the Jews in Judea, who were ordered to abandon practices that seemed particularly antagonistic to Greek belief.  According to Jewish historical accounts, circumcision, with its none-too-subtle message of man’s imperfection, and the Sabbath, whose rest from work flew in the face of nature’s ceaseless toil, were specific targets; as was the Jewish ideal of modesty, which the Greeks saw as the expression of unnatural shame over the human body.

Some Jews willingly accepted the new culture, and eventually became absorbed into it.  Others, though, through whom Judaism persevered, resisted and eventually rebelled, establishing their independence from the Seleucids.  Chanukah celebrates their refusal to abandon the Jewish ancestral faith.

In Jewish tradition, the Greek era is called a time of “darkness,” a reference to its unenlightened worldview.  The candles lit on Chanukah are meant to symbolize how, in the words of the Talmudic rabbis, “a small bit of light can push away a large amount of darkness.”  And indeed, over the millennia that ensued after the first Chanukah, the Jewish vision of right, wrong and human responsibility has persevered over the once-ubiquitous Greek culture, which, at least in its original form, today resides only in museums and college courses.

The darkness that has yet to be banished, though, is the hatred for Jews that accompanied contempt for Jewish ideals.  May that animus too, despite its current popularity, soon go the way of the pankration and Greek gods, forever exorcized by the small but powerful lights of Chanukah menorahs everywhere.

© 2004 Rabbi Avi Shafran

My Auschwitz Spoon Chanukah

 R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen is my beloved father-in-law. He is a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, and y lives in Toronto.   His book,”Destined to Survive,”  from which the below is adapted, is published by ArtScroll/Mesorah –


One of the items I smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved me into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus – was my spoon.  It wasn’t much, but it was mine – and it would come to play an important role in my Jewish life and in those of some of the 500 or so other prisoners there.

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

With my new access to tools, I brought my spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife.  Now I could use it both to eat my soup and to cut my bread. This was useful because we would often receive one chunk of bread to divide among two or three people, and without a knife it was difficult to apportion the bread fairly.  Now I was regularly called upon to use my spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, though, my spoon became involved in an additional mitzvah. By then, we had been transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz in its daily ordeals.  Despite the horrendous hardships we suffered daily, however, we tried whenever possible to remember to do a mitzvah and to maintain a self-image as G-d-fearing Jews, despite all the dangers that involved.

Having always kept mental track of the calendar, I knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, a group of inmates and I began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, our fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. We remembered how we could never seem to get our fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, how we basked in their warm, special glow, how they seemed to imbue us with a special sanctity.

And then we got to thinking about the origins of Chanukah, about the war of the Hasmoneans against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts.  We recalled the great heroism of the Jews at the time who risked their lives in order to keep the Sabbath, practice circumcision and study Torah.  And we remembered how G-d helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

And then we looked around ourselves.  Here we were, in a camp where our lives were constantly in danger, where we were considered sub-human and where it was virtually impossible to observe the most basic practices of Judaism.  How happy we would be, we mused, if only we could light Chanukah candles.

While we talked and dreamed, we were all suddenly struck, as if at once, by the same resolution: We simply must discover a way of doing the seasonal mitzvah.  One fellow offered a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks?  We began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

What, though, could be our menorah? I took out my spoon, and within moments, we were lighting the Chanukah “candle”, reciting the blessings of “Lehadlik ner”, She’oso nissim” and “Shehecheyonu”.  We all stood around entranced, transfixed, each immersed in his own thoughts…of Chanukahs gone by…of latkes, of dreidels, of Chanukah gelt we had received as children.

And our unusual Chanukah menorah kindled in us a glimmer of hope. As we recited the blessing about the miracles G-d had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time”, we well understood that the only thing that could save us would be a miracle.  A “nes gadol” – “great miracle” – like the one hinted at on the dreidle’s acrostic.

Even non-religious Jews stood near us watching the flame of the Chanukah candle.  I am certain that none of us who survived will ever be able to forget that luminous moment in the darkness of our concentration camp lives.

The celebrated Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was himself, incidentally,  an inmate of Kaufering, asserted in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that, to survive the concentration camps, a person had to have something larger to live for.  Those with goals had a better chance to remain alive.  We religious Jews in the camps were certainly good examples of that phenomenon, living for our Sabbaths, our Jewish holidays and our daily recognition that there is an Almighty, whether or not we could ever fathom His ways.  And I often felt that our convictions helped us cling to life when others sank to the depths of despair.

And today, I am overwhelmed at times with gratitude to G-d for my personal miracle, my survival, especially when I am surrounded by the children and grandchildren He has granted me, all of whom are committed to the observance and study of the Torah.  And the gratitude comes rushing in as well every winter, when I light my menorah – a real one today –  and, as always I do, I remember my Auschwitz spoon Chanukah.


The Original Spin on Chanukah

Tis the season to be Jewish; menorahs and latkes abound, and oil (for each, unfortunately) will soon flow like water in countless Jewish homes.  Chanukah, thank G-d, is once again upon us.

It has become fashionable to attribute the popularity of the Jewish festival of lights — second among American Jews only to Passover — to the fact that the winter Jewish holiday tends to roughly coincide with a major Western Christian celebration.  But to see Chanukah as nothing more than a foil to another faith’s observance is to miss the Jewish festival’s conceptual essence.  Chanukah may well resonate with contemporary Jews for a deeper reason —  because it speaks, perhaps more than any other Jewish calendar-milestone, directly and powerfully to us.

Chanukah has been appropriated by a host of Jewish leaders and pundits for their own, often partisan, purposes.  Last Chanukah, for instance, a New York news radio station repeatedly featured a Reform rabbi’s remarkable declaration that since Chanukah commemorates a victory over an oppressive regime bent on undermining the Jewish religious tradition, the holiday should be regarded as a celebration of religious pluralism.  Several years earlier, a widely-published columnist (Orthodox, as it happens) suggested that the festival of lights is an affirmation of the need for tolerance.

Chanukah, however, isn’t celebratory Silly-Putty. It has a long, deep and clear tradition in classical Jewish texts, from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters.  And, on its most basic level, it addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance, admirable though those concepts may be in their proper place, but Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by the contemporary Jewish world.

For the rededication of the Temple from which the holiday takes its name (Chanukah means “dedication”) and the military victory over the Seleucids that preceded it were unmistakable expressions of resistance to assimilation.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not the Seleucid empire as an occupation force, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior”, “sophisticated”, wholly secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph over assimilation.  The Maccabees succeeded, in other words, in preserving Jewish tradition, in drawing lines.

And so the miracle of the lights, our tradition teaches, was hardly arbitrary.  Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil.  For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah, the teachings and laws that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.

Even the custom of playing dreidel, sources explain, is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity.  The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty.  They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they rightfully regarded as the engine of Jewish identity and continuity.   The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah in pairs or groups; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

Is it mere chance, too, that Chanukah seems so intriguing to contemporary Jews, so very many of whom are threatened with assimilation, not coercive, to be sure, but no less threatening to Jewish survival?  Or might that coincidence be laden with meaning?

Meaning, and a message: Jews can resist the temptation to melt into the surrounding culture.  They have the ability to put away the dreidels, take out the books and make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about their lives.

May all we Jews have a happy, and meaningful, Chanukah.

© 2002 Forward






Candles in the Wind

There’s considerable cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major Christian celebration (though this year they are several weeks apart).

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed as a celebration of religious freedom (or even, weirdly, as a salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the Festival of Lights is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters.  Chanukah 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 Maccabees was not so much the Seleucid empire as a military power, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation.  The Maccabees succeeded in preserving Jewish tradition, 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 assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, Chanukah should resonate even more meaningfully to us American Jews.

Release of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000’s data on Jewish affiliation and intermarriage has been delayed for now, but it is hard to imagine that when it comes it will bring good news.  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 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.  Even leaving aside its inherent Jewish wrongness, consider what Brandeis University researcher Sylvia Barack Fishman discovered: fully half the intermarried couples raising their children as Jews hold Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by others 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 slowly happening on its own.  Crazily, where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

The “miracle of the lights,” our tradition teaches, was not an arbitrary sign.  Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil.  For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah – the principles, laws and teachings that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity.  The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty.  They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood 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 dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling the Temple menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of the Jewish faith over the past 3000 years.  All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment.  “Chanukah” means “dedication.”  It is a time for all of us Jews to rededicate ourselves to our heritage.

We have the power to keep ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and to resist the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way.  We know how to put down the dreidels and open the books.  We can make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about our lives.

And with our will, our study and our observance, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

We can all have not only a happy Chanukah, but, more importantly, a meaningful one.

© 2002 Rabbi Avi Shafran