Category Archives: Chanukah

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


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