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Hanukkah Belongs to Reformers

Hanukkah Belongs to Reformers

Today we light the fourth candle of Hanukkah. We kindle lights – each Shabbat and, as we’re doing this week, during the darkest period of the year. We also kindle lights during the darkest moments in history, and in countless ways: in the values we espouse, in the kindnesses we extend, and in the visions we hold of a world redeemed and whole.

Despite the way it’s celebrated, though, Hanukkah really isn’t a holiday for children. Sure, we tell our kids the story of Antiochus, the “bad guy” who oppressed the Jews, and then we tell them about Judah Maccabee and his brothers, who fought Antiochus, and, against all odds, won. Then we eat our latkes. But that’s not the full story.

The story of Hanukkah is infinitely more complex and profound. Primarily, it’s an internal debate about the substance of Judaism.

There was, in the time of Judah Maccabee, a group of Jews who said modernity (e.g., philosophy, science, and culture) was to be embraced. They ditched everything Jewish to embrace it. Judah Maccabee responded as a zealot:  unless you fully embrace tradition and oppose modernity, you are not with us. That line in the sand was the essential argument of the Hanukkah story – and it’s still alive and well today. 

Reform Judaism is the Movement of modernity. It is the Movement that first embraced the greatness of science and culture and philosophy, but, unlike the Jews of Judah Maccabee’s day, not to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, Reform Judaism also is the Movement that declared that modernity is not antithetical to tradition, and that the two can be synergistic and mutually strengthening.  It is the Movement that lets the best of modernity infuse our Judaism, and the Movement whose core values can elevate the world around us.

But we are not the first reformers in Jewish history. The Talmudic rabbis, disliking the militarism and zealotry in the Hanukkah story, decided to rewrite it. Six hundred years after Judah Maccabee’s battle against Antiochus, they recorded a previously unknown story in tractate Shabbat, which was intentionally designed to change the trajectory of Jewish history. We all know the story. It’s the one about the small flask of oil that lasted for eight days. It’s the story of a divine miracle, not a story of militarism or zealotry. It’s a story that shows victory by spirit, not might or power. Those Talmudic rabbis not only rewrote the Hanukkah story, but also created new liturgy, new ideas, and a new way to tell the tale. We Reform Jews are their inheritors.

Like them, we have the audacity to reshape Judaism. Standing on their shoulders, we embrace the best of modernity and the essence of Judaism, declaring that the synergy between the two is alive.  So, when we gather to spin dreidels and light hanukkiayot and sing songs, let’s make sure that the people who are celebrating the Maccabees’ victory understand the deeper layers of the Hanukkah story.

In Tractate Shabbat 21b Hillel and Shamai debate about lighting all eight candles on the first night and removing – instead of adding – one candle on each subsequent night. According to Hillel, it doesn’t work to start with so much light and have it get darker and darker until the lights go out. He suggests doing it in reverse. That Talmudic principle – D’maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin (In matters of holiness, you must go up, never down) – is the principle of our Reform Movement, and for us as Reform Jews: D’maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin.  

As we light our hanukkiyot this week – acquiring a bit more light each night – let us stand tall. Let us stand with Israel. Let us stand with individuals who disagree with us. Let us never stop offering an enlightened alternative to zealotry and a Judaism that is frozen in yesterday’s form. Let us stand in unity as Reform Jews, boldly embracing the best of modernity together with the lifeblood of our rich Judaic traditions.

Chag urim sameach!

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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