Circles of Light

Circles of Light

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone


 

Had Chanukah been a February or March festival, a good safe distance from its Christian neighbor in December, would it still have the power to attract even assimilated Jews to the glow of the candles? How important would Chanukah be without the calendrical reality of a Festival of Lights which arrives specifically at a time when sunlight is all too scarce and when Jews yearn to join into the universal Holiday spirit without necessarily causing their Jewish consciousness to react negatively?

The irony is that the one festival which speaks to the most assimilated Jews is a festival unequivocal in its rejection of the assimilationist forces in Judaism. The Maccabee rebellion was both an internal struggle against a Jewish leadership which desired to transform Judea into a Greek city-state and to trade in the one G-d of Israel for the pantheon on Mount Olympus as well as an external battle against Greek-Syrian domination over the struggling Jewish State. Which aspect is the most central? Let us explore a fascinating halakhic detail concerning the proper place for the Menorah which may well provide the answer.

The Talmud declares: “It is a commandment to place the Chanukah lamp by the door of one’s house on the outside. If one dwells in an upper floor, he places it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger, it is sufficient to place it on the table.” (B.T. Tractate Shabbat 21a)

What we cull from this law is that the question as to where to place the menorah establishes principles and priorities, the highest being the placing of it where the greatest number of people can see its light, at the entrance of the door facing the outside, thereby publicizing the miracle to the outside passersby. However, those who live in houses without access to the front door are allowed to place the candles in windows overlooking the public thoroughfare. But this is one mitzvah which takes into account the situation of the Jewish minority, for if it’s a dangerous time or a dangerous neighborhood, we need simply light the menorah at home – the kitchen table will do just fine – where the family can enjoy the flames, and that’s considered sufficient.

In a halakhic compendium called the Arukh Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908) points out that even though in his day there was no danger present, the candles were nevertheless kindled inside the houses because of the practical fact that Chanukah falls during the height of winter, days of heavy rains, snows and strong winds, when it’s nearly impossible to light the menorah outside. He concludes that even though the public will not see the Chanukah lamp, there is no problem as long as the publicizing of the miracle is directed toward the members of the household (Orah Haim, Section 671, Par. 5).

In contrast to this view we find in Har Tzvi, the Responsa of former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1960), that the Jerusalem custom (and indeed the custom of most families in Israel) is to light the menorah outside the front door, which is also how we do it in Efrat.

One possible way of explaining the difference in their conclusions is by delineating two separate approaches to halakha: the Arukh Hashulchan views a Talmudic decree which is enacted for a specific reason as having continuing validity (mah shegazru gazru) and therefore once a ruling appeared requiring that the menorah be lit inside the house, that’s the custom to be kept even though the danger factor is no longer present. Rav Zvi Pesach Frank would argue, on the other hand, that since the original halakha understands that the proper place for lighting the menorah is at the door’s entrance on the outside, and that placing it within the house was done only because of a specific circumstance, then it’s reasonable to say that as soon as that reason no longer applies, and the hour of danger is over, one must then light the candles where the miracle can best be publicized – outside the home!

I believe, however, that it is also possible to explain this difference of opinion in a more profound and historical fashion. Chanukah fundamentally celebrates a victory over two threats to Jewish survival: the first was the external threat of the Greek-Syrians, poised to wipe out the Jewish nation and the Jewish religion by uprooting basic laws, by destroying our Holy Temple and by nullifying our national sovereignty.

The second threat was an enemy which rose from within, the threat of assimilation at the hands of Jewish Hellenists so desperate to become born-again Greeks that they went through surgical procedures to erase the signs of circumcision. Assimilation, the phenomenon of taking on the total identity of a host culture, from language to ideals to religion, had penetrated even the most sacrosanct chambers of the Jewish nation, the holy temple itself. An extreme Hellenist, who had plundered the gold vessels of the Temple, a Jew named Menelaus, even bribed Greek-Syrian King Antiochus to be appointed High Priest over Judea.

The rebellion of the Maccabees represented a double victory, over the Greek-Syrian forces from without and over the assimilating Hellenists from within. The Holy temple was purified, a national and religious revival united the Jewish people now rededicated to their G-d, their Torah, their nation-state. The miracle had to be publicized – in the Temple as well as at home, for the outside world as well as within our own families!

Over the centuries in the Diaspora, particularly during the period when the Arukh Hashulchan was writing his major work in the late 19th Century, assimilatory trends had made major inroads in Judaism. The Enlightenment, or Haskalah, rose to its height after Napoleon’s lowering of the ghetto walls, and floods of Jews fled their heritage, seeking to merge identities with their host country, a phenomenon that continues to this day.

After the Holocaust, the major threat to the Jewish people is not so much the enemy from without, the nations ready to pounce on us if we retain our unique identity, but rather the threat that comes from within ourselves. As long as we think that our visionaries are Woody Allen and Philip Roth, we have little emotional energy for an “archaic” Shabbat or a “primitive” Sukkah.  The state of the Jewish Union in America is over 52% intermarriage with barely 2 million Jews who belong to any Jewish organization at all; American Jewry has melted in to the great Melting Pot!

Perhaps the Arukh Hashulchan could be hinting that in his day, with the storms of assimilation beginning to rage, we need not light the candles outside the house or even facing the window. It’s we who have to see the lights, not the nations of the world. The people who must learn the lesson of Chanukah, the futility of assimilation and the uniqueness of our heritage are, first and foremost, the members of our own households, our own children!

Therefore, since assimilation in Israel is insignificantly small compared with figures worldwide, we here are far less concerned about intermarriage. In Israel, Jews will remain Jewish no matter what; will retain the festivals and sacrifices for their nation even if they are not observant, and so there is no need to light the candles inside the house for our own household. Here the threat is from without, emanating from nations who wish to destroy us, who have not yet ceased acts of terrorism against us. Hence the former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem rules that the major publication of the miracle is for external consumption, for the nations of the world, and therefore the menorah is to be lit outside the house. During these days two messages are being sent across the planet. One is inner directed, and the other outer directed. If we understood that being a light unto the nations and being a light unto one’s family is not a contradictory proposition, the Jews who come to Chanukah for its universal theme and to remind us of our rights to remain a separate Jewish nation among the nations of the world, may stay behind for its religious message, urging a cessation of assimilation and a pride in our own rituals and life style! The truth is that only if we succeed with our own families to inculcate faith in our unique Jewish destiny do we have a chance to succeed in a military and ideological battle with the other nations of the world.

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