Reaching for Each Other Across Imperial Divisions:
A Hanukkah Practice for Dismantling Antisemitism
One feature of imperialism today, and throughout time, is that the imperial power will pit factions within a local community against each other to weaken their ability to organize. This was true in ancient Israel during the time of the Greek-Seleucid empire when assimilationist, priests and traditionalist Jews were deeply divided in their response to Hellenism and eventually to the oppressive decrees of Antiochus. This was the political background to the Hanukkah story that gave rise to the Maccabees. While aspects of these divisions came from internally-driven differences in approaches to Judaism, the hostile environment towards Jewish belief and practice deepened these divisions.
The current environment makes it challenging for Jews with different political and religious approaches to find common cause with each other to challenge anti-semitism. On the right, Jews were told by a non-Jewish sitting president of the United States that if they vote Democrat they are “very disloyal to the Jewish people,” while on the left Jews who publicly identify as “zionist” are shunned from progressive coalitions. While Jews today have legitimate, and deep differences in approaches to domestic politics, theories of change, Israel and Palestine, and more, the anti-semitism that creeps into the way these differences are exploited by the larger world, makes it harder for Jews to organize with each other.
I want to propose that Hannukah be the time we make a conscious tikkun/repair to this dynamic of division. While we need to name and challenge anti-semitism wherever it exists, Hanukah can be a time we focus on our relationship with other Jews and reach for connection. A key feature of anti-semitism, and of all oppression, is the internalization of negative messages about one’s people. One of the best ways we can fight anti-semitism is by not believing the negative messages we’ve internalized about ourselves and other Jews, and by reaching for closeness with all types of Jews, especially those with differing opinions.
Rav Nosson of Breslov has a beautiful teaching about Hanukah that can provide spiritual inspiration for this Tikkun/repair. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) describes three ways the Hanukah menorah can be lit:
One candle each night for the entire household
Each person in the household lights one light each night
Each person in the household lights all eight lights in ascending order.
Based on a teaching from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Lekutei Moharan 1:34), he explains:
The one candle for the entire home represents the light of the true Tzaddik/holy, righteous leader and teacher that we learn and grow in hearing/reading their teachings (imagine everyone looking at the same one light)
One candle for each person represents unique aspects of holiness that we can learn from each other (imagine everyone looking at each other’s one light)
The third approach represents each person’s inner righteousness and holiness that grow with cultivation of our inner qualities and relationship with the Divine (imagine everyone looking at their own and each others growing lights)
It is the middle approach that offers us a way forward in healing our alienation from each other. This approach features the appreciation of the uniqueness of each individual, represented by the one candle. Let’s use the eight days of Hanukkah, as we light and look at the flames, to find that holiness throughout the Jewish community, including someone that may have a different political ideology. We may not agree, but we can find the point of holiness, that enables us to come together and organize to defeat anti-semitism, and fufill our eternal mission to bear witness to the possibility of change and liberation for all.
Chodesh Tov and Hanukkah Sameach,
Rabbi David Jaffe