By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Chanuka is the festival of lights, so it is both natural and paradoxical that the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles must ideally take place in the darkness. The lights of Chanuka come to dispel the darkness. But consider the association of Chanuka with darkness; so much of Chanuka revolves around darkness. The Midrash expounds the second verse in the Torah as referring to the four exiles that Jews will endure in our history, the third being the Greek-Syrian exile that ended with the triumph of Chanuka. “And ‘darkness’ – that is the Greek exile that darkened the eyes of Israel with its harsh decrees” (Breisheet Raba 2:4). And the very form of the mitzvah of Chanuka emphasizes the darkness. When do we light? The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 21b) states “from the time the sun sets until pedestrian traffic ceases in the market,” further defined “until the Tarmodeans, wood sellers, are no longer walking in public.”
And where do light? Again, from the Talmud, “the mitzvah of the Chanuka candles is to place them out the entrance of one’s home, outside,” where it is dark, facing the public domain. The common custom of lighting inside is a compromise born of misfortune – “in times of danger it suffices to light inside on one’s table.”
Why then is Chanuka a commandment that is celebrated in the dark?
Five times in the last six weeks – and I wasn’t looking for it – I have come across similar statements made by five different individuals, I assume without coordination, all in the nature of: “if Orthodoxy and feminism are incompatible,” or “if Orthodoxy and egalitarianism are incompatible,” then I want nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Or, as one put it, “until I became a feminist, I had no idea that the Torah was so anti-woman.” Or, if the halacha is not changed, and the Mesorah is not flexible enough to accommodate my desires, then I am out. At a certain point I realized – again – how history and especially Jewish history repeats itself, and how time and again Jews lose their way and willfully self-destruct.
We have had many “–isms” threaten our faith over the centuries, beginning with Hellenism in the Chanuka story that swept away most Jews from observance of Torah. There have been other “–isms” even more recently – Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Objectivism, Feminism, Egalitarianism, etc. All have several things in common. They each presented singular overarching theories that to believers will solve all problems that they wish to see solved. And they all have been designated by their Jewish adherents as the “ikkar,” the essence, with the Torah relegated to something “tafel,” secondary. The “–isms” were so intellectually and psychologically dominant that they became (or become) the standard by which Torah is to be judged. And here is the basic rule of Jewish history: whenever the “–isms” became the lodestar, the touchstone, the benchmark by which all else – including the Torah – is measured, Jews were lost to Torah, by the thousands and tens of thousands. It is as if the believers concluded: If the Torah, a mitzvah, a minhag, a Jewish value, or a Jewish idea does not accord with one of the “-isms,” then they must be rejected, for G-d surely did not intend that, if there even is a G-d.
Even worse, the “-isms” became objects of worship, veneration and adoration, even more than the Torah. I once encountered a young person who had rejected the mitzvot and become an objectivist, a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand who was Jewish herself but non-practicing. Nothing I said could persuade him; some of her ideas made sense, and some were preposterous, but this young person was unmoved, even when I asked if my interlocutor realized that a choice between the Torah of the living G-d and….Ayn Rand is really no choice at all! There is nothing to compare! No matter. Rand it was. Whatever becomes the measure of all things – and is not Torah – is a ticket on the slow train to one’s spiritual doom.
And of course, none of the “–isms” are completely negative, otherwise they would not attract thinking Jews. In fact, the opposite is true. Each “-ism” had or has many fine features. Our Sages (Masechet Megila 9b) spoke glowingly of Hellenism: “’Let G-d expand the boundaries of Yefet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem’- may the beauty of Yefet reside in the tents of Shem,” son of Noach and ancestor of Abraham. There is beauty, harmony, and even nobility in Greek culture, properly indulged and characterized. It can find its place even in the tents of Shem. For a time, our Sages even permitted the Torah to be written in Greek and read in public – the only language afforded such a privilege.
Is there not the kernel of a good idea in Socialism – the democratic control over the means of production? It might not be my cup of tea, but it sounds fair. Only a Jew could have thought of Communism – an end to private ownership, the epitome of the egalitarian society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Sounds great in theory! Ayn Rand – self-help, self-sufficiency, individual rights, capitalism – wonderful. But it’s not Torah, so it’s flawed. All these doctrines were flawed in theory and practice, but it is not as if there is nothing attractive in them.
And the “-isms” also have in common that each ideology snatched pious Jews away from their faith – beginning with Hellenism (as history records: most Jews became Hellenists – that’s why the Maccabees were a minority in their own land among their own people) to all the modern movements. Socialism, Zionism, and Communism made inroads in every yeshiva in Europe. There were frum Jews – ordained rabbis from the finest yeshivot in Europe – who became staunch Communists and by the time they realized what Communism had in store for Jews, it was too late. There were distinguished, pious Jews who became revolutionaries – for socialism, Communism, against the Czar and others – and relinquished the Torah life as well. All these ideologies, in vastly different ways, were immensely seductive. The temptation to change the world, join the avant garde, and be part of mass international movements was extremely appealing.
Zionism is different in that the core of Zionism always was a Torah concept – the Return to Zion as promised by the Torah and our prophets. But there were many people who threw away Torah for secular Zionism – saying, in effect, “the mitzvot are only necessary for the exile!” – itself an incorrect paraphrase of a point made by the Ramban (Devarim 11:8). Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Eshkol and too many others all attended Yeshiva in their youth, and gave it up religious observance. They didn’t have to abandon the Torah life; Religious Zionism has demonstrated how one can be an observant Jew and a Zionist. But abandon Torah they did in order to create the “new Jew” who became remarkably like the old Jew who abandoned Torah for other “-isms.” Likewise, there are people who still grievously distort the Torah for anti-Zionism, which is also just another “–ism.”
I fear that the same thing is happening with feminism and egalitarianism. They are also just “-isms,” and each of them also contain some good – equality, fairness, sensitivity, an end to abuse, increased opportunities, etc. But each of them also contains ideas and practices that contradict the Torah as well, and therein lies the danger. The fundamental departure from Torah that characterizes these two “-isms” is the assertion that males and females are the same and therefore men and women are “equal.” Men and women are no more equal than an apple and a tomato can be said to be equal. They have some things in common, some things in which they are distinguished, and different roles (even different brachot). To build an ideology on that proposition is essentially to repeal parts of the Torah, nature and common sense.
Whenever something is designated as a counterforce to Torah, is deemed to be an idea or value that supersedes or transcends Torah, or is perceived as the barometer by which the Torah is to be measured – then you know you are on the wrong track. Whenever any “–ism” comes forward and says, “worship me, the Torah must obey me,” and induces one into thinking that if the Torah cannot be harmonized with the “-ism” then the Torah is flawed, know that you are on the wrong track. Then the person has to have the inner strength and fortitude to say “I may be a Hellenist, Socialist, Zionist, Feminist, Egalitarian, etc. but ‘ahd cahn.’ Only up to here. I can go no further without abandoning what is mostprecious to me, the Torah and its mitzvot.”
Shlomo, in his wisdom, summarized our obligations: “fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man in his entirety” (Kohelet 12:13). Any ideology that takes us away from Mitzvot – intentionally or unintentionally, permanently or temporarily – is flawed, invalid, and unworthy of a Jew. Those who believe in G-d and His Torah must internalize that our lives will not be measured based on how good Hellenists we were, or Socialists, or Communists, or Feminists or followers of Ayn Rand – but how good and faithful Jews we are. We delude ourselves at our peril into thinking we can have it all and embrace it all and harmonize it all. We can’t. The “-isms” of history swept away countless numbers of Jews; the modern ones still do.
The purpose of Chanuka is to illuminate the darkness outside, not to bring the darkness of the outside into our homes. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said the Mitzva of Ner Chanuka was so formulated – light candles in the place of darkness at the time of darkness – “so that we should bring our light into a darkened world," until the Tarmodeans – i.e., the mordim, the rebels and revolutionaries, can no longer stand in the public domain.
In times of danger, when the outside world beckons with its temptations and heresies, entices us to look at the world through the prism of an “-ism” and not through the Torah and our Mesorah, and tries to cajole us into making additions, subtractions and amendments to the Torah, then we have to ensure that our homes, our places of holiness, remain pure, and the jug of oil in our hearts is unsullied by alien ideas. We may not be able then to enlighten the world but we can keep our homes and families spiritually safe and secure.
Only then we will again be imbued with G-d’s spirit and worthy of having His presence dwell among us. Only then can we anticipate His protective hand that will shield us from the turmoil and struggles ahead, as He did to our forefathers (and foremothers) in those days in this season.