The following is a transcript of Episode 37 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Today is Monday, November 29th, 2021. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Our theme for today is Hanukkah: Interfaith and the Israeli psyche.
In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Hartman Institute here in Jerusalem, and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical or modern Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue.
Friends in an upcoming episode, as I announced the last time, we’re going to turn it around and ask you what you want us to talk about. So please send us your questions so that we can raise them on the show. Send an email or better yet an audio recording of your question that we can play during the podcast.
Send it to [email protected] Please, let us know if you don’t want us to use your name. We look forward to hearing from you and I understand there were some technical issues. So if those of you tried and couldn’t get through, try again. Let’s begin.
Mai Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah? The Talmud famously asks centuries after the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE against the Seleucid empire’s attempt to suppress the practices of Judaism. The question, what is Hanukkah was meant to invite new ideas for the holiday. A few mere decades after their moment in the sun, the Maccabean legacy, had already soured as the descendants of Judah, the Maccabean were vanguards of Hellenization and enemies of the rabbis who were shaping a new Judaism for the post-biblical era. That invitation famously led to replacing the significance of the Maccabean military victory with a more spiritual focus and emphasis on the purification of the Temple from idolatry and the miracle of the flask of oil lasting eight days and the lighting of the menorah. The question, what is Hanukkah is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago when it was first posed. The two major Jewish communities of our time Israelis and North American Jewry each has responded in very different, even opposite ways to that question.
For Zionism enmeshed in a constant conflict over the founding and sustaining of the state, the Maccabbees served as paradigmatic models for a warrior Jew and the willingness to fight and sacrifice for Jewish political freedom in Israel. Hanukkah became principally the festival of Jewish heroism of our ability to persevere against overwhelming threats.
For North American Jews striving to mainstream the Jewish experience into their broader culture, the Maccabean revolt was converted from a Jewish victory over our oppressors to a universal battle against religious suppression in the midst of the Christmas season. Judaism and its Hanukah lights became beacons for interfaith ecumenism and religious tolerance.
As an Israeli, I’m intrigued by the North American Jewish understanding of Hanukkah and how its spirit of religious pluralism or ecumenism is so alien to Israeli society. I understand why Israel chose to answer the question of what is Hanukkah the way they did. But after over 70 years after Israel has become the most powerful nation in the Middle East with a stable and strong Jewish majority, but with a significant Muslim Christian and Druze minority, is there room or is there a need for Israel’s approach to Hanukkah to be reevaluated?
Yossi. Hi, it’s nice to be with you and to see you again,
Yossi: Nice to see you, Donniel. Hanukkah Sameach.
Donniel: I missed you over Thanksgiving. It’s a whole week I had withdrawal. It was really nice to see you. Let’s delve into this. Both you and I have, I think, it’s an interesting perspective because we’re both Israelis and Americans and we’ve celebrated Hanukkah in both countries. You more than I. I came much more earlier on from Canada. But we
Yossi: Yeah, but I only started celebrating Hanukkah later in life.
Donniel: Ah, interesting.
Yossi: It’s a joke. It’s a joke.
Donniel: Oh, oh, it was a joke. I can’t tell. I thought maybe there was somehow God connected to your Holocaust upbringing. I had no idea.
But we’ve seen both. Let me turn to you. What’s your answer? You know, if someone would turn to you, the rabbi’s, mai Hanukkah, what’s your Hanukkah?
Yossi: So my Hanukkah, I mean it, in the English sense and not the Aramaic sense.
Donniel: Yossi, that was very clever.
Yossi: I was waiting for a response, Donniel. It’s like the first and only time I’ve ever made a pun in Aramaic.
So you know, my Hanukkah is actually on neither the Israeli military-based or heroism based Hanukkah nor especially the American Jewish ecumenical version. It’s much more the Hanukkah of the mystics, the Kabbalists. It’s looking at the purification of the Temple as a metaphor for the rededication to the spiritual life, to examining oneself, to the striving for being more of a receptacle for the divine light. It’s really on that level. And that’s been my Hanukkah for many years.
Donniel: So divine light. go into that a little more. The lights, the candles become centered. Speak about that. Because most people, I don’t think most people..
Yossi: Yeah I’m a little hesitant to go into details because it’ll really just take us far afield. But in the Jewish mystical tradition, you can relate to each candle, each night as another sefira, as another aspect of a quality that human beings and God share.
Hesed Gevurah. Generosity Strength. Tiferet. Harmony. Harmonizing strength and generosity, et cetera. And so you go through each of the nights and you connect to another aspect, another quality that you…
Donniel: It’s very deep spiritually. And it has nothing to do with the military victory. It even transcends the Temple. It is the symbolism of the light and a spiritual journey that each person must engage in attempting to be unified with the divine.
Yossi: I mean one aspect of Kabbalah is the ultimate privatization of Judaism. And so you’re right. Not only is it not the military aspect, even the Temple becomes a metaphor for your own inner temple, your own spiritual, striving, and purification.
Donniel: Very interesting
Yossi: How about you? What is your Hanukkah?
Donniel: For me, Hanukkah is the least spiritual of Jewish of all Jewish holidays. And it has two very different dimensions to it. One also shaped by the Israeli experience, it wasn’t that I never related to the military victory. I felt that the Hanukkah for me when I had to talk about it. You know, there’s a difference when you’re a teacher and when you’re a Jew.
So, there’s what you experienced, what you have to talk about. It’s a strange…
Yossi: It’s like being a rabbi in a congregation, I guess, you know?
Donniel: Yeah. But part of what I would think about, theoretically, I was always very moved by the idea that as Jews throughout our history at different moments, we’re told not to be Jewish.
And we never said, okay. We’re always willing to fight. That idea of being willing to fight and even die for what you stand for is something that moves me very, very deeply. We shouldn’t be here. And for so much of our history being Jewish was not just simply counter-cultural. Being Jewish was dangerous.
And I stand in great awe of my ancestors who said no. And they could say no to the superpowers of history. And they could say no to the dominant religions of history. And I think part of being a Jew, part of the lesson of Hanukkah is the willingness or the recognition that you will only be here if you’re willing to sacrifice.
If you’re willing to say no. I’m not dying to say no and I’m not dying to die. And I’m not looking for self-sacrifice, but there’s something about when you stand for something, that you’re willing to die for it. For me, that was a very deep part of Hanukkah. It’s half of my Hanukkah
Yossi: I want to ask you a question about this. How do you reconcile the Jewish no, the historical Jewish no with the much more fluid, open, flexible Jewish yes? Or maybe of today in which many Jews have in effect, reinterpreted, Hanukkah as a yes to other religions? A yes to the openness of the west and in particular America?
Donniel: Yes, but I don’t see that as a threat to Judaism. I see that as redefining the essence of our Judaism. I don’t feel that the contemporary Jewish experience is an assimilationist, a watering down of Judaism. I embrace it as a deeper reflection and representation of new possibilities within Judaism where I’m not divided. Where the world is not always my enemy and I’m not divided between the particular and universal.
But that I could engage in multiple particulars. Or I could expand my particular in the midst of a relationship with somebody else. So Hanukkah wasn’t the Hellenizing experience. It was the moment where someone says it’s illegal for you to be Jewish.
And we Jews could have checked out. And we said no and then they weren’t attacking us for being Jews. They were attacking Judaism.. And so for me, I always felt that to be a very meaningful part of what Hanukkah stands for. And the second part, and I think it’s really important to put this on the table.
One of the beauties of Hanukkah is as a parent and as a grandparent the beauty of the ritual and the joy of the ritual and the gifts, which have nothing to do with Hanukkah itself and the songs and the dreidels. It’s just a fun holiday. It’s a great holiday.
Yossi: I don’t experience it that way at all.
Donniel: I know. So it’s like the eight days of Hanukkah. Yehuda Kurtzer said the other day, his daughter came to him and said, Aba, is this the first day of Thanksgiving? Because everything is eight days. It is such a holiday of abundance in Hebrew, shefa. The light is abundant.
The food is abundant. There are no restrictive practices. None of the don’ts and don’t do this and that. There’s something so beautiful and joyful and fun about the holiday. And maybe they’re also quite connected because to be Jewish is both to be willing to say no. And you will only survive if you are willing to say no. This is where I stand.
And at the same time, Judaism only survives if it’s joyful if it’s not a conflict. Judaism is not a conflict. I exist in conflict. I exist because it’s fun to be Jewish, the joys of Judaism, and Hanukkah represents both of those ideas for me very, very deeply.
Yossi: It’s interesting how one can live the same tradition but in completely different ways. My most powerful Hanukkah experience in my life was going to see the candle lighting of the Bluzhever Rebbe who was a well-known Rebbie in Borough Park where I grew up and originally from Bluzhev in Poland and he was legendary in Hasidic circles for having somehow lit some approximation of a menorah in Auschwitz.
And I went to see him and the place was packed full of young people who wanted only to see him light the menorah. And I have never been in the presence of such light in my life. And you felt that he was simultaneously in Brooklyn and back there. And whatever he had managed to bring there he was bringing through in Brooklyn. And there was this sense of awe.
And afterward I went up to him and to get a bracha, a blessing from him. And my father had recently died. And I was saying Kaddish. I didn’t tell him that, but he looked at me and he pumped my hand and he said, God will help you to be strong. And the strength of the Bluzhever Rebbe’s Hanukkah lighting is with me to this day when I light.
Donniel: I feel embarrassed. Do you know what my most meaningful Hanukkah experience was growing up in Canada? In Montreal? We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have a lot. My father’s salary wasn’t that great. And we had five children. And I remember my mother also had an ideology that anything that other people did we don’t do.
So we never bought presents We never bought toys. We made toys like you had a ball that’s life. You don’t buy stuff. It was very, very different. But in a shul the wealth of the rabbi is not dependent on their salary, it’s dependent on the different professions of the congregants.
So my father had a congregant who had a toy store and for me, a toy was a puzzle, you know, or a ball or a book, that’s it. I played a lot, but it wasn’t with stuff. And I remember on Hanukkah there were bags of new toys. I still see them. Because it was only on Hanukkah. There was no other time.
Yossi: But Donniel, look at the genius of this holiday, that it can function on so many levels simultaneously and speak in so many different languages to whatever it is we need. And that’s the beauty of Torah.
When we say 70 faces to Torah, what do we mean?
Donniel: So let’s take these different sides and go to Israel and contemporary Jewish life a little bit. Now I think in Israel, there is a tremendous amount of the joy of Hanukkah that I experience. Already a month before the holidays the jelly cardiac donuts are being sold and marketed and the fancy ones are there.
The whole country transforms in that sense. And it’s universally celebrated. Everybody. It’s just all over the place and the kids and the festival. It is a truly joyous holiday, but in the doctrine of Zionism, it’s not the joy of Hanukkah. It is the military victory.
It was the paradigm of the Maccabean warrior, who was the precursor of the IDF. Really, the only precursor that we really had who we could point to. And the problem with all the other holidays is we didn’t do anything. God was the one who saved us. Here was one where we actually fought.
Yossi: And then we blew it.
Donniel: But we don’t like to talk about that one because that speaks about the dangers of power, which we could talk about another time. But do we still need – how important is this Maccabean warrior narrative? We also know now we also know it wasn’t true.
It was a minor victory in the midst of a much larger campaign because truth be told we couldn’t defeat the Greeks. Maybe we were the mouse that roared and for a while. But that model which was so central to Zionist official embracing of Hanukkah, the Maccabees, do we still need that, Yossi?
Yossi: I’m tempted to slow this conversation down and say, well, wait a minute. You’ve just thrown in some revisionist history here. And let’s unpack it. But in a way, it’s related to your question, because the question is: regardless of what the historic truth of Hanukkah is, do we really need that that story in the same way that we did, let’s say in the early years of Zionism? in the early years of the state?
My sense is, and I could be wrong about this, and I would really like your response. But my sense is that the military aspect is no longer as central in Israeli culture and education as it once was.
And it’s become more the holiday of Jewish persistence, of Jewish survival. I don’t feel that same need for military heroes in Israel, generally. You know, Yom Kippur War freed Israel from its veneration of generals. We don’t revere our generals in the way that we did before 1973.
The last military parades this country has had was Independence Day, 1973, 6 months before the Yom Kippur War. I think that was a real turning point in our relationship to the question of heroism.
Donniel: Really interesting, because what you’re saying Yossi is that there’s, the official Hanukkah. It may be in the school books and in the curriculum, but part of what’s happened is that Israel has in fact grown up.
And also one of the changes is Israelis love their Judaism much more. There’s
no rabbinate and this is just mediated by society and the joys and the celebration. It’s Jewishness in a very natural way. But I think you’re right. I don’t think need it. And I think you’re right.
We don’t talk that talk anymore, but we didn’t start doing the American
Yossi: No. And it’s a good question of why?
Donniel: This idea that we were fighting for religious freedom and therefore to be a Jew is to fight for religious freedom. In Israel, Hanukkah is still the ultimate particular holiday. It’s ours. Whether it’s our joy, our desire to consume more and more oil and any fried foods. You know, I’m thinking about the gap between the light of your Hanukkah and the fried food narrative of the marketplace. How far we’ve come. But the middle ground of Hanukkah as a place of religious freedom and a commitment to religious freedom and interfaith conversation, all of that doesn’t exist here.
How do you make sense of that?
Yossi: It’s interesting, even when Hanukkah coincides, as it has over the years with Ramadan certainly with Christmas, there is no indication that there’s another holiday happening in the Israeli public space, other than Hanukkah. And I think it has something to do with, first of all, is Israelis’ relationship to Islam, which is based entirely on fear and distance, and Israeli’s relationship to Christianity, which is very much a pre-Vatican II mindset.
I think most Israelis haven’t internalized the deep theological changes toward Judaism that have happened certainly in the Catholic church. And to some extent in other denominations in the way that many American Jews now take for granted. We haven’t experienced that partly because the Christianity we know here tends to be more of the Orthodox version and the Orthodox actually have not progressed theologically in their understanding toward us. So we don’t have a context here in the way that Jews in America have for an interfaith encounter. How do you understand it?
Donniel: Yossi, I think this issue of interfaith conversation and the relationship or the possibilities of interfaith is something that we need to unpack much more deeply. And maybe we should do this in the next podcast.
Yossi: Let’s go for it.
Donniel: What’s the place of interfaith conversation in Israel? But I would add to it in North America, the catalyst is a society that is welcoming you to be a part of it. And you want your holidays to have a universal dimension because it’s not that you’re giving up your particular identity. Your particular identity has universal content and the juxtaposition of Christmas and Hanukkah enables you to engage precisely at this moment and to say, yes, we all have our holiday to celebrate each the dignity of each one’s particular.
It’s not my victory, but my ability to integrate the two together grows out of an experience in which I’m being welcomed and asked to come to the table. Now in Israel, and this is what I want to talk about the next time. We’re at the table. We’re setting the table. What table do we set now? Why?
When somebody invites us and we’re the minority, I want to play the universal card. I want to join your larger culture and to say yes, as a Jew, I have what to contribute. As a Jew I have what to say and my Hanukkah, which used to be the most particular Jewish holiday of my ability to survive…
What’s Hanukkah? It’s my ability to survive until this very day. The Hellenizers – how many within certain denominations precisely speak about America as a Hellenizing experience? So it’s my ability to survive, to stay away from, and now here, I’m welcomed, I’m being welcomed in and I want to try to do almost what you said at the beginning.
I want to embrace the world without interpreting that embracing. And be a part of the world without interpreting that desire as an assimilationist Hellenizing experience. But in Israel, we’re at the table and how does a table engage in interfaith? This is going to have a huge impact also on Israel’s relationship with Israeli Arab, Palestinian citizens, and Arab citizens or individuals who live in Judea and Sumeria.
So I want to talk about that. I want to give you the last word on this, but let’s put the deeper discussion on a hold. Last word, Yossi. Before we turn to Elana.
Yossi: The the two models that you laid out at the beginning of the conversation, the ecumenical model of Hanukkah for American Jews and the more particularist model, the more protective survivalist model of Israelis I think really reflect the responses as you said to each circumstance.
And it really reflects something of the genius of Jewish adaptability to our various circumstances. American Jews are right to use Hanukkah in a more open way. We are right to draw on the survivalist roots of Hanukkah, but maybe there’s room for American Jews and Israelis to look into the others observance and orientation and learn something from the other because that’s really the opportunity that we have in this time to learn from each other and to compensate for what each community is lacking.
Donniel: Great. Let’s take a break for a few seconds. And when we come back, Elana is going to take our conversation deeper and higher.
Elana. It’s nice to be with you. I put a heavy task on your shoulders but given your record, feeling kind of confident.
Elana: What do you mean? First of all, Happy Hanukkah. Second of all, a few minutes ago, you were talking about what you’re willing to die for. So who’s got the burden here. You or me, Donniel. I got to start with what Hanukkah means to me because it was really interesting. I was listening to both of you and I’m like, well, it means a third thing to me.
And I think that’s pretty fantastic. Hanukkah to me is about religious maximalism. It’s not one light each night. It’s 1, 2, 3, 4. You build up and there’s something about Hanukkah that is so immersive, even as you go about your regular daily life. I’m not in synagogue all day and yet every morning I say an elongated prayer and every evening I’m lighting with my kids and there’s something that makes me less lazy, I guess, in my religious life, I feel particularly motivated on Hanukkah to do things that sometimes when I cut corners well, I say we can’t cut corners it’s Hanukkah.
Donniel: Could you expand on the analogy with the candles a little bit? Because I think that’s a key part.
Elana: Absolutely. Sure. So the way that we practice on Hanukkah, the basic commandment is that we could just have one candle per household and that’s it.
Donniel: Every day, one house, one candle.
Elana: Every day one candle. And it’s not even that we just do one candle per person per household. It’s that every night we continue to elevate the first night.
It’s one candle per person in the household. The second night, it’s two candles per person in the household. And you go all the way up to eight. And there’s a sense of incremental building that I find very inspiring. That kind of pushes me. It’s not an all or nothing. It’s a building up towards, whatever it is, that is your religious-spiritual potential.
So I find it to be a very inspiring time, but what I want to do in this conversation besides for offer my third Hanukkah, though, what each of you said resonated with me deeply as well. I want to disrupt the connection between two central tensions within Hanukkah. So one tension within Hanukkah is the tension between our refocusing on a military victory or refocusing on a spiritual or religious victory.
That’s one tension. Another tension within Hanukkah, which thank God for this tension, because it means that we’re in a place where we can actually access the universal dimensions of Hanukkah. That tension is the universal versus the particular. Now what you both described is you described the kind of hitching one side of this tension in one space to the other.
So the universal is the religious and the particular is the military. And I want to disrupt that a little bit and I want to disrupt that by looking at a couple of modern sources actually, which is not my usual and one Talmudic source. The modern sources are American. The first is my favorite. It’s an American Jewish folktale.
That’s really the way to put it: an American Jewish folk tale that basically goes as follows. You have to imagine George Washington at Valley Forge. We’re in the middle of the Revolutionary War and the story goes some variation of this: it is mid-winter at Valley Forge. Everyone is cold.
Frostbite is widespread. Everyone has given up hope. George Washington is depressed. One night looking for inspiration. George goes for a walk through the camp. He finds one Jewish member of the continental army lighting the hannukiya. The soldier explains Hanukkah, Judah, Maccabee, and everything to George who refinds his courage in the process enough to stand up when the boat crosses the Delaware.
Donniel: So George is the Maccabee?
Elana: Yes. So you know, that famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware and the boat. So this folk tale is he got the courage to stand in that boat from Hanukkah because he met a Jew, right? Like I’m laughing because it’s a folk tale, right? It’s doing work. And then it says later, the first president sends our Jewish soldier, a silver menorah as a gift of appreciation, along with a letter, which says, and this is the punchline.
“Judaism has a lot to offer the world. You should be proud to be a Jew. That folk tale is amazing because look at what it did. It took military victory and instead of seeing military victory as particularistic, it’s what do you mean? Military victory is actually an inspiration to everyone It can be an inspiration to George Washington. It can be an inspiration to America. And that is such an American move.
That sort of the way we may have always looked at the military might as particularistic. We had the Hasmonean dynasty that an American Jewish folk tale says, no, no, no, no, that’s universal too.
And then I want to take, on the other hand, someone like Emma Lazarus, let’s say who is a pretty comfortable American Jew, right? She’s a pretty comfortable American Jew, but she’s also an incredible Zionist. And she writes in this poem called, “Feast of Lights” in the mid 19th century, maybe late 19th century. It’s a gorgeous poem. And towards the end of the poem, she says, “where is our Judas?”
And she means Judah the Maccabee, not that Judas. “Where’s our Judas, where is our five branched palm?” She means Matityahu’s five sons.
“Where are the lion warriors of the Lord. Clash Israel, the cymbals. Touch the lyre. Sound the brass trumpet and the harsh tongued horn. Chant hymns to a victory till the heart take fire. The Maccabean spirit leap newborn.”
And she’s talking about Zionism. She’s saying we need Maccabees too, even though we’re Americans and we love being in America. We need Israel. We need Palestine and we need that too. And I think that the ability to actually have both of those together is also rather interesting.
An incredibly comfortable American Jew sees no contradiction between her Zionism and her Americanism, which I think is rather fascinating.
And then I want to introduce one last one. And the one last one is actually how -I don’t really know how much we can divorce the spiritual from the political, maybe not the military, but from the political.
And that is this really heartbreaking – but back to, Donniel, I was very struck by your point of what you’re willing to sacrifice for. And it’s a heartbreaking, brief passage in the Jerusalem Talmud where you get a very vivid depiction of how, even when you’re not thinking about your Jewish life as resistance to something, it might be understood by others as resistance to something.
This Yossi and Donniel, what you’re talking about is this sense that in Israel, Hanukkah is still resistance to something. Whereas in America it didn’t feel that way. I think it’s interesting to consider the places where it wasn’t about resistance, but it became about resistance because people made it that way.
This is the Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Sukkah chapter five, section one. It goes like this, “in the time of the wicked. Trajan, a son,” this talking about the Roman emperor Trajan, “a son was born to him on the ninth of Av.” The ninth of Av is like the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
Donniel: The ninth of Av is the day the Temple was destroyed.
Elana: The Temple was destroyed. Yes. Thank you for that clarification. And so the Jews were fasting and it happens to be that the emperor has a child on the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. And then his daughter died on Hanukkah and as you’re describing the happiness of Hanukkah and the joys of Hanukkah and the Jews were lighting candles.
It’s not that they’re trying to resist Trajan. It’s just they’re going by their calendar, but going by their calendar has a lot of baggage with it. It’s the ninth of Av, destruction of the Temple. Well, the Romans destroyed the Temple. Or Hanukkah has that political dimension of the Hasmonean empire being created but also has a religious dimension.
They’re just lighting their Hanukkah candles. And his wife says to him, “before you go out and conquer the barbarians says Trajan’s wife, maybe you should go conquer the Jews who actually rebel against you.” And the story continues that he actually does. And so I’m fascinated by the baggage that Hanukkah carries with it, good and bad.
To me, baggage is not a bad thing. It’s carrying the baggage and then how you choose to interpret it. Right? So in America, I’m surrounded by Christmas paraphernalia, but not yet, actually. It’s kind of weird to have Hanukkah so early. Usually, they come together. This is the first time in a long time that I have a menorah in my lobby and there’s no Christmas tree yet in my lobby.
So how does it feel when they’re at the same time and how does it feel when they’re separated while you might’ve told the story that when they’re at the same time oh, it feels like they’re against each other? Actually, in the American story, they both start to stand for religious liberty.
And when they’re at different times, that’s actually when we’re a little weird. So I think there’s just a lot of threads here, between the universal and the particular, the religious and the political that get tangled up in a great way, actually.
Donniel: Thank you. I want to go back just initially to the George Washington story and how dare you claim it’s a myth.
Elana: I mean if there’s an American Jewish historian, who’s listening, who has the …
Donniel: I’m just teasing about that. But the I think part of it, which has a deep impact on Hanukkah in America is that it was very natural to ascribe George Washington, as a Jewish victory. Because America was the new Israel.
Elana: That and also, I think that, the way that the two of you talked about America being a place that affords Jews the ability to fit in and we grab it. America also, its story is about Europeans finding religious liberty. That’s how it was founded. So it’s not just people give us room. It’s what do you mean?
Hanukah is the quintessential American story. It’s people fleeing persecution.
Donniel: It’s the comfort of that story. It’s America as promised land and part of the shaping of the holiday of Hanukkah and the integration… I see what you’re saying. It’s what it’s not simply that we wanted to compete against Christmas and make Jews feel – no, there’s something much more about the Jewish sense of at-homeness in America that plays out in the content of Hanukkah. It then gets picked up a little bit on Pesach as well. Those are the most Americanized or universal holidays that we have, but Hanukkah is the American story.
This ability to overcome evil and to survive and to translate it as America’s victory as a Jewish victory. That is a very deep part of the uniqueness of the American experience and the meaning of Hanukkah reflects that very, very deeply.
Elana: I was going to say one of the things that I love is you even look at the Chabad menorah lightings, they are the most ecumenical things you’ve ever seen. Meaning they’re not interrupting. Right. Meaning interfaith has a little bit, they’re not interfaith, but they are universalized.
Right? So the mayor is there. Or, you know, it’s not just Jews who are going to watch a menorah being lit. It’s a public story. Right? In some ways Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson that was his genius to realize there’s something universal here, even as it can be Jewish.
Donniel: I also wonder whether and this also we could talk more about next time when we talk about interfaith in general, whether Hanukkah and the size of the Hanukkah menorahs is a power play. I’m here. That the secret to being America is not integrating universal values.
The secret of America is the dignity of my being able to celebrate my particular in the public sphere. And I’m not doing an interfaith conversation. I’m here and the mayor’s going to come. I’m the Maccabee. The mayor’s going to come. America gives me that ability to bring my Jewish pride into the public sphere.
And instead of cowering under the aura of the Christmas tree, I’m going to out light it with the biggest menorah you’re ever going to see. So I think some of that is not pure interfaith.
Elana: Well, it’s not, I don’t think it’s interfaith at all. I think that’s a question for a future conversation.
Donniel: I think it’s power. I think Chabad has an interesting take on Jewish power. And Jewish power doesn’t only have to be military. It has to be public. It’s public relations. It’s pride, it’s visibility. And I think it’s a very interesting take that to be Jewish in the modern world willing to go public, not to be private.
I have a feeling that some of that might be here too.
Elana: Right. But I think you can ask is universal interfaith or can you be universal being interpreted in some other way? And that’s what Chabad’s putting on the table.
Donniel: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s universal. I think it’s particular on the world stage.
Elana: Well said.
Donniel: I’m not universalizing Hanukah. I’m universalizing the Jewish ability to be particular, just like everybody else is particular. We didn’t talk about that idea, but I think it also has a lot of importance and value, and merit.
Yossi, before we come to a conclusion do you have any thoughts that you’d want to share in light of Elana’s teaching or in general?
Yossi: Really just to wish our listeners, a Hanukkah sameach and that in this festival of rededication that we rededicate ourselves to whatever our highest vision of our own lives are.
Donniel: That is so noble. I want a jelly donut.
Yossi: Donniel, I’m trying to sound rabbinic.
Donniel: You return to where you started and I’ll give you credit for that because your Hanukkah is really a different Hanukkah. It’s been universalized in another way. Right?
Anyway. Kol Hakavod. Fascinating.
Yossi and Elana, a pleasure to be with both of you.
For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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See you in two weeks when we’re going to pick up on this whole issue of interfaith and ecumenism. And when we Jews set the table as distinct from when we’re trying to integrate into a larger table. See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. And to echo Yossi, Hanukkah sameach. Happy Hanukkah everyone.