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Reinventing Hanukkah: Lubavitch Looks for the Inner and Outer Light

Chabad sees the holiday as an assertion of visceral Jewish pride that disregards the desire for conformism and assimilation
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Material for this article and the others in this series is adapted from Noam Zion’s book, A Different Light, The Hanukkah Book of Celebration.

Under the missionary Lubavitcher rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneersohn in Brooklyn, CHaBaD (Chohkma, Binah, v’Da’at, an acronym of highest and more abstract spheres of the mystical Godhead) has reinvented Hanukkah in ways dialectically related to the Reform and Zionist Hanukkah.

These and only these Hasidim have chosen this holiday to carry their chief ideological and strategic message for Jewish survival and renaissance in the 20th and 21st centuries. For the Reform movement, Hanukkah symbolizes the light of religious liberty shared by Jews and enlightened Americans in contradistinction to benighted obscurantist religion. Therefore the “wall of separation” between church and state which Thomas Jefferson wished to build must keep the public space clear of religious symbols like the Christmas creche, while proud Jews may demonstrate their belief in that value in their homes and synagogues.

But American Chabad places its menorahs – electric, for the most part – on the White House lawn, at the most conspicuous public intersections and even on highways in Florida. Now Chabad knows that such menorahs do not fulfill the mitzvah of lighting candles in your home on the threshold. But they see this as an extension of the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle.

While many Reform Jews are scandalized by this violation of their American democratic faith and fearful that it invites Bible Belt Christians to reconquer the public space, Lubavitchers see it as an assertion of visceral Jewish pride that disregards the desire for conformism and assimilation typical of modern day Hellenists and their obsequies surrender to the darkness of Greek, that is, Western values:

The Error of Greek Ways
Some people think that Hanukkah is chiefly about a military victory. However, while the military victory was essential, it was a means to the final purpose of purifying the Temple, spiritual survival. In short, the point is to remove Greek pagan influence and spread light of holiness.
Greek culture has two faces. Outwardly it is brilliant and attractive. Inwardly it is rotten and corrupt. It is the culture of sports, circuses and theater. Nevertheless, even in Eretz Yisrael there were Jews who wanted to assimilate, “to live it up” as Hellenists. Hagei Yisrael for Youth, Lubavitch Center for Education

Like Secular Zionists who reclaim the militancy of Judah the Maccabee, Chabad organizes its youth movement in quasi-military fashion, calling it Tzivos HaShem, the Armies of God, and assigning children ranks, as in the army. It sends forth missionaries in Mitzvah “anks” to reconquer secularized Jews by bringing them the light of Torah wherever they may be in the world, from Mumbai to Machu Picchu to Bangkok. The enemy, however, is not hostile Arabs, and the goal is not political independence, but an internal cultural religious civil war with non-Orthodox rabbis and wholly assimilated and hence extinguished Jewish souls (neshama).

Lubavitch outreach uses the shamash, the servant candle of the menorah which lights the eight sacred candles, as its symbol – to light the candle is to ignite the lost soul of a Jew who still possesses the “pintele yid,” the Jewish spark:

My father-in-law reported this conversation with his own father, Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber, then the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
The Hassid asked: Rebbe, what is a Hassid? The Rebbe answered: A Hassid is a streetlamp lighter.
In olden days, there was a person in every town who would light the gas street-lamps with a light he carried at the end of a long pole. On the street corners, the lamps were there in readiness, waiting to be lit. A streetlamp lighter has a pole with fire. He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all lamps on his route.
Today, the lamps are there, but they need to be lit. It is written, “The soul of man is a lamp of G-d” (Proverbs 20:27), and it is also written, “A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). A Hassid is one who puts personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to ignite these lamps with his or her flame. That is the function of a true Hassid. – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Lubavitcher Rebbe from 1950-1994), based on Sichot HaRebbe (Talks of the Rebbe) from the years 5701, 5700, 5722.

When all Jews have returned to their true Jewish spiritual self, then the messiah has come. No wonder so many Chabad followers regard their dead rebbe (1994) as still alive, as the messiah incarnate. The redemption of all Israel and of the whole world is accomplished a soul at time, a mitzvah at a time, just as the Hanukkah candles are added one each day as the power of their light are broadcast into the darkness at the darkest time of the solar year and the lunar month.

Mixing modern technology for communication and ancient, Chabad arranged a worldwide candlelighting by the rebbe, broadcast by satellite all uniting their worldwide outreach.

Recently we can “proclaim and propagate the miracle” the world over using a satellite or other scientific inventions to honor God, because as the Rabbis said “everything God created in the world was for his honor” (Pirkei Avot 6).
In fact the ability to see visually by satellite how one person, even a child, can light a candle seen round the world instantaneously teaches us that it is within the power of each one of us to light up the whole world. By satellite we can unite Jews all over the world no matter how dispersed, thus Hanukkah teaches the oneness of Israel, of God and of Torah.
The satellite connection teaches the Jews that what happens in one place can have an effect in any other place, what happens in heaven (satellite) can have an effect on what happens on earth. If it is a mitzvah “to place the candle on the outside of one’s doorway to proclaim the miracle,” then even more so is it a mitzvah to place it “outside” in a central public space for even greater “proclamation of the miracle” – including for the nations of the world, for they too are commanded to observe Torah, the laws of Noah. Of course one’s house should also be a source of light for one’s environment – a house filled with inner spiritual light of Torah, prayer and loving kindness.
The Hanukkah candles we light are comprised of two aspects; a) illuminating the world during the time of exile, and thereby b) preparing the world for the coming redemption. – Rabbi Menachem Schneerson during candle lighting by satellite (1992)

However Chabad’s welcoming embrace of all Jews, observant or not, which is so at odds with most Haredim, is not a sign that they have forsaken the cultural civil war of Hanukkah. The Jew is welcome but not the Jew’s heretical beliefs in Western enlightenment or Reform and Conservative Judaism.

A more pluralistic imagery of the Hanukkah candle and the Jewish people can be found in Rav Abraham Kook:

Everyone must know and understand
that within burns a candle/lamp.
There is no one’s candle is like his/her fellow’s
and no one lacks their own candle.
Everyone must know and understand
that it is their task to work to reveal the light of that candle in the public realm.
And to ignite it until it is a great flame,
and to illuminate the whole world.

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