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The Courage to Defy Mass Culture: Reflections on the Lights of Hanukkah

Hanukkah challenges us to build an identity that accepts outside cultures while maintaining loyalty to our own history and culture.
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

The Courage to Defy Mass Culture: Reflections on the Lights of Hanukkah

We are pleased to bring you one in a series of classic lectures, essays, and articles by Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This material, unseen for decades, is now available for the first time online and in digital formats. This essay on Hanukkah, one of several on the holiday, dates to 1979. This and other articles have been brought to light by SHI Library Director Daniel Price.

As Hanukkah approaches, I would like to reflect together with you on the possible significance of this holiday in the light of several classical Jewish sources. I shall present certain Talmudic passages which I believe to be particularly relevant to our contemporary situation.

There are two classic accounts of Hanukkah which serve as rationales for this holiday:  the description of the miracle of the burning oils in Tractate Shabbat (21b – 23b), and the description of the Hasmonean victory in the Book of Maccabees.

The Talmud explains the holiday of Hanukkah as follows:

What is (the reason for) Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev commence the days of Hanukkah, Which are eight – on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle occurred and they lit the lamp for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.
R (Shabbat 21b)

The primary reason offered by the Talmud for the celebration of Hanukkah is the miraculous burning of the single valid cruse of oil which enabled Jews to rededicate the temple and to commence rebuilding the community’s spiritual life. Contrary to normal expectations, the flame continued to burn for eight days.

Although there may have been sufficient oil in the cruses of oil which had been ritually defiled, Jews insisted on using only pure oil, even though the quantity found appeared to be insufficient. The willingness to rely on one small but pure cruse of oil symbolized the reluctance to compromise their standards of excellence and moral ideals.

Uncompromising commitment to purity and trust in the eternal regenerative power of personal integrity were concretely expressed in the symbol of the cruse of oil chosen to light the first Hanukkah lamp.

Jews throughout history loved to retell the story of the tiny cruse of oil which refused to burn out. In recounting this tale, they indicated their deep hope that the small community of Israel could survive and generate light irrespective of its size and power. Israel’s fervent commitment to and trust in its way of life were sufficient reasons to retain hope in the community’s future regardless of the empirical conditions of history.

In considering the miracle of the cruse of oil, our sages asked why the holiday of Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days, rather than for seven days. Since there was, by all accounts, sufficient oil for one day, only seven of the eight days of burning may be designated as miraculous days. Though several ingenious explanations were offered
(e.g., only one eighth of the quantity of oil burned out on the first day), what strikes me as being the miraculous feature of the initial day was the community’s willingness to light the lamp in spite of the fact that its anticipated period of burning was short-lived.

The miracle of the first day was expressed in the community’s willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle expressed by those who lit the lamp and not only the miracle of the lamp’s continued burning for eight days.

The “miracle” of Jewish spiritual survival throughout its history of wandering and oppression may best be described by our people’s strength to live without guarantees of success and to focus on how to begin a process without knowledge of how it would end. Uncertainty of success often paralyzes one’s initiative to act. It is not uncommon for people to refuse to study Torah, because of their belief that they lack sufficient time and willpower to become accomplished scholars. Human initiative is undermined by the rationalization that since completion of the task in question is not assured, there is no point making the required effort to begin.

The Hanukkah lights encourage one to trust human beginnings and to focus one’s passions and efforts on whatever opportunities are available at the present moment. One ought to pour infinite yearnings even into small vessels. The strength to continue, and to persevere grows by virtue of the courage to initiate a process by lighting the first flame. Only lamps which are lit may continue to burn beyond their anticipated life span.

Only he who devotes even 15 minutes a day to learning will discover his latent powers to study and concentrate. Only he who breaks the chains of moral complacency by giving a minimal amount of tzedakah will discover greater capacities to respond to those in need.

One brings children into the world without knowing whether one will be able to love and provide for their needs throughout a lifetime. Only in actually caring for one’s children does one discover and expand one’s capacity for love and concern. Human capacities and achievements grow as a result of action and not as a result of noble ideals and well-meaning intentions. The Hanukkah lamp burned for eight days, because of those who were prepared to have it burn for only one day.

The eight days of Hanukkah incorporate the miracle of the first day, which signifies the miracle of man’s courage to begin to build within imperfect human situations. There were undoubtedly many people who were skeptical of the decision to light the Temple lamp with a single cruse of oil. “Why light a flame which is bound to burn out before the temple is completely rededicated? Let the temple remain ritually defiled until we are certain that we have enough oil to light the lamp for a long period. Why initiate a process which we cannot complete? Wait until the conditions are ripe!”

Those who went ahead and kindled the lamp ignored such “voices of reason” and availed themselves of the precious opportunities at hand. And the miracle of Hanukkah occurred.

Those who decided to proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel in the Twentieth century were Jews who had learned the message of Hanukkah well. There were many “reasonable” voices that counseled cautious waiting for the right moment. “Be cautious! Wait until your army is stronger. Wait until the vast majority of world Jewry will actively support the Zionist ideal and will choose to participate in the national-political rebirth of the Jewish people.” Despite its detractors, a minority of the Jewish people went ahead and proclaimed the rebirth of the State of Israel.

The powerful flame of Israel was ignited in 1948 by a small component of the Jewish people. Today few would deny that history has shown that those who had the courage to light the flame were correct. World Jewry realizes that the Jewish soul must be kindled by the flame whose source is in Jerusalem. It is no accident that the symbol of the State of Israel is the menorah. The flame which burns in the hearts of Jews throughout the world was initially kindled by the small flame ignited by those who heroically proclaimed: “We are reborn!”

The second focal point of Hanukkah is the Maccabean victory against the tyranny of Antiochus. The book of Maccabees and the liturgy specific to Hanukkah highlight the Maccabean struggle against religious oppression and emphasize the victory of the few against the many, rather than the miracle of the cruse of oil.

The motif of the Maccabean victory on Hanukkah was the source of Jewish heroism in the face of adverse conditions of history. Although they lacked military and political power, Jews identified with the victory of the few against the many, as described in the liturgy in terms of their courage to maintain their commitment to Judaism in spite of religious persecution.

The Maccabean victory and the miracle of the lights are not mutually exclusive reasons but indicate different emphases. The courage to oppose a cultural monism which threatens to undermine particular differences and thus to destroy the unique character of Jewish identity was a dominant characteristic of Jewish history. Like the spirit of the Maccabean revolt, lighting the Hanukkah lamp is a public demonstration of Jewish life in defiance of an ethos which seeks to neutralize individuality and cultural diversity.

The accepted practice of lighting one additional candle each night of Hanukkah is noteworthy by virtue of the fact that this particular way of fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah lamp is considered to be a form of hiddur (embellishment, beautification) mitzvah.

The precept of Hanukkah requires one light for a man and his household; the devoted ones kindle a light for each member of the household, and the exceptionally devoted, Beit Shammai maintains: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Beit Hillel says: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.
(Shabbat 21b)

Although Jewish law stipulates that one candle each night on behalf of an entire family is legally sufficient, we express exceptional devotion to Torah by following the practice of the mehadrin min ha’mehadrin (the exceptionally fervent among the fervent) by adding one candle each night, as Beit Hillel and by having each member of the family light his or her own menorah.

On Hanukkah, all of Israel voluntarily accepted to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law. The practice accepted by the community on Hanukkah demonstrates its passionate love of Torah and mitzvah.

Making hiddur mitzvah the accepted practice of Hanukkah is befitting a festival where Jews proudly affirm commitment to their particular way of life. Hanukkah symbolizes the Maccabean courage to defend Jewish particularity against the threat of cultural monism.

We stand firm against cultural totalitarianism, which ridicules the dream of spiritual pluralism and blurs cultural differences between peoples. Universalizability must remain an essential condition of ethics alone. Although our belief in the universal dignity of man created in the image of God must be firm and uncompromising, our attitude to cultural and spiritual ways of life must express the values of pluralism which safeguard diversity and individual integrity.

On Hanukkah the Jew demonstrates his love for his particular tradition without fear and hesitation. In order to publicly demonstrate the Jew’s loyalty to his particular tradition and to openly affirm the miracle of Hanukkah, the Jew is required to place the Hanukkah lamp where it will best be noticed from outside.

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Hanukkah lamp by the door of one’s house on the outside. If one dwells in an upper chamber, he places it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table in the privacy of one’s home. (Shabbat 21h)
In lighting the Hanukkah lamp, the Jew announces to the outside world: “This is my flame. Gaze on this light and know that from this home a .Jewish light burns. If you accept me in these terms, I am prepared to share my light with you and to be an active member within a shared universe of experience. If, however, you seek to extinguish my flame, then I shall remove my lamp from the windowsill and place it on my private table to be viewed by my family alone.”

In times of danger and persecution, the Jew may withdraw into the privacy of his particular framework of experience. Life must not succumb to the standards of the marketplace which denigrate the value of his unique identity and particular way of life. In the face of hostility and oppression, the Jew lit the menorah for the members of his family so that the flame of Judaism would be internalized in their souls. Although the marketplaces of history led one to believe that Judaism had died and become a lifeless fossil, in the private corners of Jewish homes, families gathered together, told the story of Hanukkah, recited the blessings over the kindling of the candles and sang a song in celebration of their people’s courage to remain loyal to Torah despite oppression and public derision. Although for Jews the streets of Western civilization were often dark and bleak, the soul of the Jew was aflame.

Today, because of the rebirth of the State of Israel, Jews can place their menorahs on the windowsills of history. We need not speak among ourselves only; we may share our flame with the outside world. Judaism is visible in the marketplaces of history because of the courage of those modern Maccabees, who set into motion the process of rebuilding our people in its ancient homeland.

The challenge facing Judaism today is not only whether we can withstand our enemies, but also whether the light visible in the marketplace radiates a profound and compelling message. Now that the menorah has been taken off our private tables and placed in the window for all to see, we must examine whether the light itself is beautiful and inspiring.

We at the Institute are dedicated to producing teachers and scholars whose intellectual and spiritual flame will be fueled by moral integrity and love for Judaism and whose light will illuminate the often-darkened streets of history.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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