A Hanukkah irony -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 14, 2011

Hanukkah today is a holiday of great irony. Though not a Biblical holiday, and certainly not Judaism’s most essential holiday, Hanukkah has taken on an exaggerated importance in America, due I think, to its calandrical proximity with one of Christianity’s most important festivals.

Hanukkah commemorates the war in the year 166 B.C.E. between the Jews in Israel and the Greek empire within which Israel of that era found itself. No two cultures could be more different than that of the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were polytheistic and emphasized the esthetic, as their statues that we visit in our museums illustrate. Their perfect physical body chiseled in the Olympics and cultivated in Greek art and writing is iconic. In contrast the Jewish people were monotheists and a nation not known for their esthetic accomplishments, but rather their theological, judicial, and ethical ones. The Jewish people fought a war against the Greeks to retain their unique religion and not assimilate into Hellenistic culture and beliefs.

We light candles on Hanukkah because Hanukkah is about bringing the light of ethical monotheism into the world, about bringing the light of spirituality into a time of deified physicality, epitomized by the pervasive Greek culture of physicality and its worship. Hanukkah is indeed a battle of light and dark, polytheism and monotheism, the physical and the spiritual, the outside culture against the small Jewish nation trying to withstand assimilation and disappearance.

How ironic that Hanukkah, an anti-assimilationist holiday, has become the holiday of Jewish assimilationism, with the giving of gifts to imitate the Christmas tradition and the extravagant spending on parties which recall their non-Jewish counterparts.

For the previous generation of American Jews the opportunity of the American melting pot was Judaism’s undoing. Jewish people in alarming numbers from that generation assimilated into American culture, and feeling they could not be both Jews and Americans, exchanged their Jewish identity for the promise of American prosperity.

Though we live in a new era, one whose watchword is multiculturalism and not assimilation, it alas has come too late for the high percentage of American Jews whose grandparents were Jewish but whose grandchildren are not. At this time of year, when we might be tempted to use Hanukkah as a way of feeling part and parcel of the outside culture, of having our winter holiday also, let us resist this temptation to fit in, and instead take back our winter holidays for what they should be. A time of learning what it means to resist the American melting pot, a time for all of us, Jew, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, to celebrate our difference and separateness; -to see each of our uniqueness as more valuable than fitting in.

The culmination of Hanukkah’s successful military campaign two millennia ago was the rededication of the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The symbol of this rededication was the lighting of the oil lamps, the menorah, with pure olive oil. This act, the bringing of light into the darkness, symbolizes the true Jewish take on Hanukkah. This Hanukkah let us celebrate, not presents and fanfare, but a single small light, adding one additional light on each subsequent night of Hanukkah and taking in the message that bringing light into the darkness is really what Hanukkah is about.


Open Your Eyes – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 15, 2009

Chanukah Candles are a unique mitzvah is that they differ from other Mitzvot that require candle lighting.

Shabbat candles are lit to provide light and to honor the Shabbat meals (think candle light dinner)

The Candles in the Beit Hamikdash we lit to honor the Beit Bait Hamikdash and to symbolize God’s presence.

Chanukah candles are a bit different:

We are told that we are not allowed to use them for light but rather “Lirotam bilvaad” – we are only allowed to look at them.

This is a strange and unique mitzvah. What good does simply looking at the candles do for us?

Rabbi Shalom Noach Brusovsky, the late Slonimer Rebbe teaches that simply looking at the candles has spiritual potency. He recalls that one of his predecessors used to stare at the candles from the moment he lit them for hours on end. He goes on to explain that simply looking at the chanukah light can combat spiritual malaise, that looking at the chanukah candles has spiritual healing power.

There is something very beautiful in the idea that seeing a mitzvah object has the power to religiously transform us. This approach bespeaks a willingness to b e inspired.

I would like to expand this idea beyond mitzvah objects to the general question of inspiration.

It seems to me that one of the great challenges that we face is that it is very hard to be inspired. It is almost as we have a force field that “protects” us against inspirational moments.

Here are a few examples:

What is our reaction when we see someone praying with great fervor – I mean really getting into it. Many tend to think that the person is over the top, even a little embarrassing.  This is especially so if the person is wearing a black hat – then we really think he is crazy. A defense mechanism kicks in that that blocks us from the realization that this person may really be tapped into something special. Instead of being inspired, or even jealous of that, we tend to get cynical.

What we should do is ask that person what has so inspired them. If our praying is lackluster, we should seek inspiration from those who pray with a sense of purpose.

Another area where we can open our hearts to inspiration is in the ever growing area of women’s participation in orthodox life. There are ever emergent developments including women being ordained on some level to minyanim that maximize women’s participation even as far as participation in the main torah reading and of course the popularity of programs offering women opportunities to study Torah at the highest level. Whether or not one approves of  or is comfortable with these development, it is time to stop judging motives and allow ourselves to be inspired. Here is a group of people who actually desire more religion. In the face of people leaving Judaism in droves, this group represents an opposing trend.

 Many of these women suffer all sorts of verbal insults, people walking out on them and second guessing their piety. This type of cynicism blocks inspiration. Instead of dismissing it as some fad, we can embrace it, even as many may disagree with the conclusions, as a legitimate desire for religious growth and be personally inspired by it.

A third area from where we should glean inspiration is from people who take on more religious practices. I sense that in the world of morethodoxy the reaction to those of our friends and acquaintances that take on more rigorous halachik practice is one of disregard or worse, disdain.

As an example, consider Lashon Hara. What is our response when someone tells us they would rather not continue the conversation because the talk has become gossip. We may think such a person has gone mad. Maybe we get insulted or feel guilty. Seldom do we feel inspired by this attempt to be more religious.

This attitude is bad for morethodoxy.

This idea of being able to remove blockages to inspiration is part of the chanulah story. After all, one of the miracles of chanukah was uncovering the one jar of oil. It was hidden away from all and then finally revealed.

This is what Chanukah is all about; uncovering what is hidden within us and the ability to look at some event, phenomenon or even person and to become inspired.


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