We celebrate Chanukah by lighting candles and saying prayers, by eating latkes or donuts or by playing dreidel, and at TBT by doing projects to help those in need (tikkun olam, repairing the world). These are all important. At the same time, we might miss out if we don’t add at least one more dimension to the holiday. We can use the themes of Chanukah to re-examine ourselves, our lives and reflect on where we are headed.*
Chanukah is often taught as the war of the few against the many; the Jews fighting for religious freedom and independence from oppression by a foreign power. While there are elements of truth to this, this version of the holiday overlooks the fact that this was at least as much a civil war among the different factions of Jews as it was a war of independence. That internal struggle was characterized by sharply different views on how Jews should relate to Hellenistic culture, then the dominant culture in Mediterranean society. Many favored adopting the “zeitgeist,” the spirit of the times. On the one side, some Jews went as far as including idol worship; others rejected any openness to Greek culture. And of course, many Jews in those days, just like many of us today, found themselves somewhere between these two extreme points of view. One of the major issues of Chanukah then is the question of balance between Judaism and Hellenism in ancient times, and today, between Judaism and Western culture.
The following are some reflection questions based on the themes of Chanukah. In some cases, it will mean trying to be honest about yourself, which is very hard, as many of us know.
1. One central aspect of the conflict between the more Hellenized Jews and the more traditional Jews is the question of interpersonal relations. Ask yourself, how do I relate to other Jews with beliefs and practices different than my own?
2. Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi in the Land of Israel, wrote that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of “hatred without limit” (Sinat Hinam/ חינם שנאת). (The redemption will come when Jews practice “love without limit” (חינם אהבת.) Ask yourself: How can I better respond to conflict with people I personally know who differ from me in their Jewish practice, and whose views and practices I disagree with? How can I increase my appreciation and love of Jews (Ahavat Yisrael) toward Jews who believe/practice differently than me, that I don’t even know, but that are just stereotypes to me?
3. How do you balance your own internal life in terms of Jewish and secular culture and education? How many years of secular education do you have? How many years of Jewish education? For you, what is the ideal balance between Jewish education and that of secular culture? If, like most of us, you’re not at your ideal balance, what are one or two small things you’d like to do in the coming year to change that?
4. How is your balance between all the different ways you take in culture, the music you listen to, the movies you watch, the amount of time and the way you spend it on the internet? What would you like to do less of, and more of, in the coming year?
Summary: We have looked at two issues confronting us from the Chanukah story—the relationship between Jewish learning and secular culture and how to deal with other Jews whose lifestyle we do not agree with. Whether consciously or not, we have all been confronting these issues our entire lives. By thinking more and talking more about these issues around Chanukah time, hopefully we can make our Chanukah more meaningful, and perhaps bring some positive change in us, which is, after all, one of the main things that being a Jew is all about—the constant striving to improve ourselves.
*These Chanukah reflections and writing prompts are excerpted and adapted from this year’s Chanukah teaching by Dr. David Bernstein, the dean of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where I studied for two years before starting rabbinic school in Boston. Dr. Bernstein teaches modern Jewish history and contemporary Israel.
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