Kindling the lights of diversity

To those who want to coerce us into unity, we say let our creativity shine

A Hanukka menorah (Flash90)
A Hanukka menorah (Flash90)

Hanukkah has long been the holiday of Israelis: the warriors of the battles of the founding of the Jewish State, the modern-day equivalent of the Maccabees whose victory over the Greeks we celebrate during eight festive days. But Israelis need a new version of Hanukkah, one for the twenty-first century, a celebration not of military might, but of our diversity during times of exile. It is time to rebuff those who insistently claim that Hanukkah, far from celebrating tolerance and diversity, is no more than a triumphant celebration of Jewish nationalism and singularity.

In the Talmud, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai disagree on the order of lighting the festive lights: the latter advises, ‘start with eight, and go down each day, ending on the eighth day with only one’; while Hillel advises, our current practice: ‘add a candle on each of the days of the holiday.’ The sages explain that Shammai relates the holiday to the descending order of sacrifices that are offered during the Sukkot holiday, linking the rabbinic holiday to a Biblical model. Some even say that Hanukkah was, in its origin, a substitute for the festival of Sukkot that could not be observed during the period of Hellenistic oppression. For Shammai, the holiday repeats and fulfills a Biblical precedent, centered on Temple worship, with the holiday lights diminishing in number, receding into unity, on the eighth day the one singular light.

Hillel, by contrast, turns away from the precedent of the Bible and the Temple, and the unity implied in Shammai’s understanding of the festival lights as well. The divine love manifest in the miracle of the oil is expressed through a movement from singularity to multiplicity, and for Hillel that increase entails ‘ascending in holiness.’ No longer centralized in the Temple, this holiness has a new set of venues. The Talmud emphasizes the home in describing the practice – ‘a light for each person and their household.’ Sometimes, this will mean the entrance way to the house, or in the window, as some of us are accustomed; but when there is a time of danger, the Talmud explains, we light in our homes, just for ourselves or our families.

Hillel saw that the enlightenment that religion could bring to the world rested upon tolerance of difference – ‘do not unto others what you would not like done to yourself’ – a conceptual origin for a modern liberal, and Jewish, ideal. This is a humble and domestic starting point, changing the world slowly, one act at a time. The energy and brightness of these acts increase gradually, inspiring others, broadening their sphere of influence. They bring light to the world steadily, paralleled in the slow ascent from one to eight.

To be sure, in Israel today we can, thankfully, light freely and proudly in our marketplaces and streets in the best tradition of the Maccabees. That said, we may now want to stress that Hanukkah marks the beginning of the exile that takes us away from the experience of unity of the Temple into a light that emanates from diverse sources. Our Hanukkah acknowledges that in the darkness of exile, multiplicity thrives. In Israel today, our danger comes from assuming that the public sphere can be prematurely unified, rendered singular, made whole and one – the rejected perspective of Shammai.

What Israel needs instead is an enacting of Hillel’s understanding that the darkness of exile precludes the realization of messianic aims in the here and now. But, by way of compensation, the darkness itself allows for new initiatives – diverse ones – for kindling lights. The Talmud – the collection of disputes that define it – was nurtured by a creativity born of the darkness of Hellenistic oppression. In our age of darkness, we nurture light on our own, in the private spheres we cherish. We are wary of institutions – be they theological, political or educational – that presume to tell us, in an enthusiastic but preemptive adoption of the messianic spirit, that uniform behavior or practice is either required or even desirable. We will say to those people who want to coerce us into unity: we would rather take our chances, and let a free public sphere nurture the autonomy and creativity of our private spaces. Let those of us living in Israel today follow Hillel’s liberal model.

To acknowledge contemporary exile does not mean turning a grudging or ungrateful eye to the miracle of the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. But it probably does demand the humility to acknowledge another spirit of the Maccabees, whose own victory was only temporary, that our messianic hopes – whatever they may be – cannot be realized today. And more: that at this time, we shun those who want to make our behavior uniform through a forced and artificial unity, embracing instead a holiday of multiplicity and tolerance, celebrating the ascent of holiness through the kindling of our diverse and different lights.

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