Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - Chanukah

Of Chanukah and Minority

If you’d have wanted to hear my sermon, you’d have come to Shul, but…

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the war of the Maccabees over the Yevanim and the Jewish Hellenist, resulting in the rededication of the Second Temple and a period of limited Jewish autonomy.  In the liturgy we thank God for having handed ‘the mighty in the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure in the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, the evildoers into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah’ (Al HaNissim prayer).

The second phrase in this text refers to the victory of a minority over the predominant numerical and ideological forces at the time of the Chanukah story.  It also provides an opportunity to briefly consider the challenges of living as a minority - something Jews have experienced for most of our history.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a marvellous and insightful analysis of this topic, an excerpt of which follows.  It’s quite long, but it’s good!  I have retained the US spellings of the translation from the original German.

There is one other particular danger which is to be feared by a Jewish minority.  It is what we would like to call a certain intellectual narrow-mindedness.  This danger becomes especially acute the more closely a minority clings to its cause and the more anxious it is to preserve that cause.  We have already pointed out that, by virtue of its weak position, a minority depends for its survival on whether it can further and foster within all its members the spirit of the cause it represents.  In order to prevail, a minority must be wholly imbued with the truth for which it stands.  We have already noted that such intensive spiritual concern with its cause is the essential prerequisite for the minority’s survival and hailed this concern as the most significant advantage that a truth stands to gain when its guardians constitute a minority.

However, precisely such complete dedication to its cause may easily lead the minority into intellectual one-sidedness.  This may well stunt to a degree the development of the minority’s unique intellectual life.  Furthermore, it may make that minority incapable of representing its cause effectively to the outside world.  Thus such one-sidedness in a minority may do grave damage to the very cause that the minority seeks to preserve and to promote.  The richer the minority’s cause, the more will the minority treasure it.  But then it may easily come to regard all other knowledge in “outside” domains as unnecessary, or even as utterly worthless.  It may reject all intellectual activity in any field outside its own as an offense against its own cause, as an inroad upon the devotion properly due to that cause and an infringement on its prerogatives.

Such a one-sided attitude does not stop at mere disregard for other intellectual endeavours.  Once this attitude has taken hold in a Jewish minority, that minority will be unable to form a proper judgment and a true image of those intellectual pursuits which are not cultivated in its own ranks but pursued mainly by its opponents.  Then, as a result of simple ignorance, the minority will begin to fear that which at first it merely neglected out of disdain.  Consequently the minority will begin to suspect the existence of an intrinsic close relationship between these “outside” intellectual pursuits and those principles to which the Jewish minority stands in opposition.

Indeed, the minority may come to regard these “outside” pursuits in themselves as the roots of the spiritual error which it deplores in the majority.  Eventually it may reach a point where it will fearfully shun all intellectual endeavors other than those directly related to its own philosophy as an enemy of its cause and as a threat to the purity and loyalty of its adherents.  (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 2, pp. 246-8)

Although written in the mid 19th-century, Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis describes some segments of the contemporary Orthodox world with astonishing prescience.  Interestingly, one thing that Rabbi Hirsch could not have envisioned is that this minority mentality might be imported into a modern Jewish state in which Jews, albeit not fully-observant ones, are the majority!

Returning to Chanukah, it is easy to see how the occasion has often been viewed through the lens of a triumphant religious minority seeking to build a high and impervious barrier between it and the predominant culture.  This casts Chanukah as a victory in a simplistic, ‘Yiddishkeit over Goyishkeit’ battle.

Yet, the very symbol of Chanukah teaches that it need not be like this.  Interestingly, the miracle of the oil was not the trigger for the institution of the festival, but actually a symbol of the ideological significance of the war.  The Temple Menorah, on which our Chanukah Menorah is based, represents the notion that all forms of human intellectual endeavour can be incorporated within a Jewish purview.  Its main lamp, also known as ‘Menorah’ and representing the Torah, stands in the centre, while the other six arms represent the “other” forms of human wisdom.  Note that the entire lamp must be made of a single gold ingot, the six lateral arms emerge from the central lamp and that only the wick at the top of the central lamp stands upright, while the other six wicks must face the centre.  These requirements indicate that all human wisdom ultimate originates in the same divine source and that the spiritual mission of the Torah must be the focus of all intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, failing to acknowledge the importance and value of the “other” may ultimately prevent Judaism from realising its spiritual potential.  Rabbi Hirsch continues by explaining that the minority:

…has cause to regard all truth, wherever it may be found on the outside, as a firm ally of its own cause, since all truth stems from the same Master of truth.  Finally, the minority should not regard all disciplines that are compatible with its own principles as enemies.  The cause represented by a Jewish minority is not purely theoretical but also involves the practical life of its adherents.  It demands the dedication of all aspects of life to the realization of its principles.  It can have real, true existence, only to the extent to which it can mold and dominate the most varied facets of everyday living…

Chanukah Sameach!