Sharing the Light (Chanukah 2013/5774)

A teacher of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary once shared the following story from his past: Many years ago, this teacher – who is now a highly regarding academician – was invited to a synagogue to be a scholar-in-residence.  Knowing that his visit would take place a few days before Chanukah, he decided to give a lecture on the origin of the holiday and its practice.  He explained how Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Syrian Greeks in the year 166 BCE, followed by the rededication of the Holy Temple, culminating with an eight-day holiday.  He demonstrated how the rabbis’ account of these events, as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, page 21A), differed significantly from the story told in the Books of Maccabees.  He explained how, following the rabbis’ emphasis on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, we light a menorah for eight nights as the central observance of the holiday. He took great pride in showing off his erudition.

At the conclusion of what turned out to be a forty-five minute class, he invited the congregants to ask questions.  Just when the quiet became unbearable, an elderly woman in the middle of the crowd raised her hand.  Feeling relieved, my teacher gestured for her to ask her question.  She began: “Rabbi, all of this is very interesting and nice.  I never knew all of those things!”  He focused his attention to make sure he didn’t miss what she was about to say. “But I have one question,” she continued, “what exactly is the difference between Chanukah and Christmas?”

This funny anecdote speaks to our experience as American Jews.  In the United States, Chanukah and Christmas have been so thoroughly detached from their religious significances that, at times, people may confuse the two holidays: we give presents and they give presents; we have lights and they have lights; we sing songs and they sing songs… not so different!

It is no wonder, then, that many Jews still wonder about the difference between Chanukah and Christmas.  The freedoms of religious practice and expression afforded to us by the First Amendment have relieved our community of its deeply felt sense of otherness.  We are full citizens, full Americans, just as much as any Christian who is born or naturalized into these United States.  We love our freedoms.  We appreciate our rights. Without question, we live in the most secure country for Jews outside of Israel.

But this equality is not free.  By embracing political sameness we have lost our sense of what makes us special in other areas.  In exchange for our religious freedom and political equality, we are asked to keep our religious Jewish selves at home so that our public selves may be secular, equal to everyone else’s.  We may celebrate Chanukah as a special religious event in our homes, but in the public arena, only the superficial—the kitschy—is admissible.

Many Jews have preserved the religious centerpiece of the “festival of lights”: the lighting of the menorah.  Often, we perform this ritual privately with our families.  But our rabbis taught that when we light the Chanukah candles, we must do it in the most public way possible, the dancing flames serving as reminders of G-d’s special relationship with our people.  This is called pirsumei nisa, “publicizing the miracle”.  That the Jewish people survived countless persecutions over the centuries and continues to this day, sharing the glory of G-d’s oneness through the performance of mitzvot, is nothing short of a miracle that we should celebrate proudly and visibly.  In a world that repeatedly has shown its tendency toward darkness, we affirm the supremacy of light.  We must share our light, not just with the people in our homes, but with everyone! On this Chanukah, as we come together to light our candles with our friends and family, let us renew our resolve to affirm that which makes us unique.  Let us shine the light of Torah like a torch held high! Let us be proud of our tradition and our people, drawing closer to our faith and community.

Happy Chanukah!

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