At Hanukkah Remember: Jewish Faith Is Not a Passive Belief but a Leap of Action

Hanukkah is about the power not simply of the human spirit but the human power to risk something of your own to ensure hope and freedom for others.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut
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Rabbi Elianna Yolkut

The cultural representation of Hanukkah is a bit hard to swallow. From kitschy songs on YouTube, to Hannukah Harry and Hanukkah bushes, the lessons of this important Jewish holiday seem to get dimmed by its placement in the calendar. It is easy to forget Hanukkah's messages of religious freedom.

The questions Hanukkah raises about acculturation and assimilation don't sell well in a world of unprecedented religious autonomy when identities are fluid and shifting. At best, complacency leads to forgetfulness and results in apathy. Perhaps even more problematic in today's Jewish world is that a message of religious commitment against assimilation doesn't speak to most people who are comfortable with, and even proud of, their ability to acculturate and live within a larger society.

A hanukkiah designed by Karl Hagenauer, Vienna, dating to 1919-28.Credit: AP

Having Hanukkah embodied in our lives forces us to ask questions that make us very uncomfortable about our own Jewish identity, and to make choices about our place in the larger society. It is much easier to sing to the latest a cappella song online and buy gifts the holiday consumerism tells us will make us feel good than to ask ourselves, How does the battle fought by the Maccabees relate to my Jewish choices today? Am I an inheritor of their hard work, or have I let their sacrifices fall by the way side?

Religious freedom, the power of the minority, and bringing light into the darkness are all important Jewish lessons that the holiday is really meant to teach. But perhaps the most important lesson is to have the audacity to believe in our own actions to change the reality we live in each and every day. So how can we not loose out on these lessons as individuals and as a community?

Imagine for a moment that you are living the time of Antiochus IV and his armies have decimated your central holy place, your religious practice is risky and hidden and you have no power with which to speak. Imagine the uncertainty and powerlessness of it all. It is impossible to ignore the darkness and devastation brought to the Jewish people at that time. In fact, it is not so far from what we witness today, perhaps not in our community but certainly in the world around us: we read and listen from a safe distance about so many oppressive regimes; we watch helplessly from afar as leaders and their henchman attempt to squelch any expression of personal religious commitment and communal freedom chosen by the people. What would happen if you weren't so far away but were in the exact same possession secretly practicing Judaism and trying to keep it from extinction? What if you had to risk your life, and the lives of your family members in order to ensure continuity? Imagine if you weren't just asking yourself how much money you might spend on your son or daughter's gift but rather, Is there any way I might be able to live and still teach them about our traditions and inheritance?

Yet there were, in this the darkest of hours of Jewish history, people who believed in the impossible, who hoped beyond reality that Judaism could survive; that salvation was not in the hands of God but in the hands of human beings like you and I.

They are our teachers.

The message of Hanukkah isn't a prosaic albeit beautiful story of a flask of oil lasting longer than expected, so let us take our lessons from people and not the oil. Hanukkah is about the power not simply of the human spirit but the human hands and legs to rise up against bleak and seemingly unending darkness. It is about the power to risk something of your own to ensure hope and freedom for others.

In the caves where the Hasmonean Maccabees hid, traveled and fought against Anitouchus and his regime, someone believed in the audaciousness of their power. Someone stood up in those dark and cold places and said, We can do this. We, too, can have great impact with our very small sparks of hope. Though we may not know how our deeds will affect others, Hanukkah reminds us that we must believe in the power of our action. While the effects may not be those we intended, our actions might lead to things we never imagined.

Isnt this what Judaism is really all about? The power of our deeds, our mitzvot to make a difference even during uncertain moments? As Rabbi David Wolpe once said, "We Jews don't take a leap of a faith; we take a leap of action." So tonight, put your Hanukkiah in your window to tell the world not simply that you are Jewish but that your Judaism asks you to take responsibility; responsibility for hope in the darkness, responsibility for freedom amidst the fetters of bondage, to break open oppression and shatter the chains of assimilation.

Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at www.keepingkavannah.blogspot.com

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