At our December 8th service, Rabbi Steven connected the ancient themes of Hanukkah to the present-day realities of antisemitism and hatred which we must overcome together.
Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays for a variety of reasons — the food, the festivity, but above all, it’s because I believe Judaism finds its best expression in simple yet effective ritual. It only takes a few moments to light the hanukkiah. Yet as we watch the small flames glow against the backdrop of the longest, darkest nights of winter, the act of striking a match becomes a powerful reminder of our ability to bring light into the world.
And right now the world, in its darkness, feels desperately in need of light.
The joy of this season is shot through with the grief, the uncertainty, and the fear that we have all been carrying for two months now. I imagine that I am not the only one who feels like it is hard to catch my breath. Each time we receive some good news, every time I have been tempted to exhale and, for a moment, breathe easy — something awful happens. The last weekend of November we experienced a brief pause in the war between Israel and Hamas, a few precious days of peace when a little over 100 hostages were returned to their homes. The vast majority of them were women and children. Seeing them reunited with their loved ones, I shared in our collective gratitude that this harrowing chapter of their lives had closed. We exhaled, for a moment.
Then they shared their stories. Hearing some of the hostages give testimony on the gender-based violence that was inflicted upon them — both that perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 and that which occurred in captivity — my gratitude quickly diminished, tempered by the horror of what had happened. The details of these attacks are impossible to stomach, and I won’t go into them right now — but bearing witness to what happened, ensuring that these stories are heard and held is important. It is essential work that all of us are called to do in whatever way we can.
We are called to this work, because alongside the pain of hearing these stories came the pain of seeing how they were summarily dismissed — that people and organizations which have stood for the right and necessity of women to be heard and believed didn’t lift up these voices or worse called them lies, fabrications, propaganda. When reports of gender-based violence first began to surface, Mallory Mosner wrote, cynically, on Medium: “Believe all women — unless they are Jews who deserved it.”
Dismissing their testimony, simply because they are Jews, was a second act of violence against these women — as unacceptable as it was cruel. It is also a disheartening example of how antisemitism has made its way into the same places where we have found community and purpose — we, Jews, who have been on the vanguard of gender equality for decades, from fighting for abortion access to championing the #MeToo movement.
But this is the pernicious nature of antisemitism. One of the things that is most frightening, most dispiriting about antisemitism is its ability to masquerade behind causes that we believe in, to find its way into communities that we are members of. It makes the work of allyship especially fraught, as we constantly calculate what is borne of ignorance and what is borne of hate. And while we certainly see it (and find it easy to critique) on the far right, it is much harder to face in the center and on the left — which is the ideological home for many Jews, and many in our community here at Mishkan — because it means reevaluating relationships (some of them which we have come to depend on), it means the painful task of figuring out when we can tolerate disagreement and when we must draw boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. This can lead to an obsessive sort of paranoia, as we listen closely to every statement, analyze every action, look behind every friendly face wondering if the shadow of antisemitism is hiding there.
There are, of course, the obvious moments when it is easy to point at something and say yes, that, that is an act of antisemitism — storefronts vandalized, graveyards desecrated, people chanting “gas the Jews.” But even these incidents are hard to track. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, 88% of American cities don’t report hate crime data at all. So while we do know that antisemitism is the primary driver of religiously-motivated hatred in the United States — when it occurs, where it occurs, how often it occurs is still unclear.
And then there are the (thankfully rarer) incidents of overt violence. It has only been five years since a white supremacist walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven people, permanently altering our collective sense of safety in this country.
But more often than not antisemitism is an uneasy feeling, a sense that the flavor is off — like food just past its expiration date. It is something much harder to point at, at least directly. It’s a wink-and-a-nudge or an off-hand comment — something that feels true, maybe is actually in part true, but where the veneer of rational thought is being used to mask the hatred behind it. Antisemitism thrives in close-association with truth (or at least what we believe to be true), to cast its shadow between statements of fact so that it’s harder to parse out what is hateful from what we might otherwise agree with.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote that antisemitism is so hard to define because it presents as a series of contradictions — a virus that mutates to infect the body politic, adapting to any attempt to seek it out and eradicate it. It appears on the right. It appears on the left. It appears in the center. And so we find ourselves trying to draw attention to something that, when looked at directly, suddenly disappears or obfuscates itself behind a cause that is otherwise inoffensive, if not unassailable. We have seen this with #MeToo. We saw it with Black Lives Matter. We are facing it in higher education, long a safehold for Jews. And yes, we are finding the threads of antisemitism weaving its way through anti-Zionist coalitions — when calls for mutual liberation suddenly turn to chants for the eradication of Jews. And antisemitism has also found its way into the Zionist tent, when voices of evangelical pastors (who only want us to return to our ancestral homeland to bring the second coming of Christ) are given the stage.
I understand that it can be painful, that it can feel deeply embarrassing or dislocating, to recognize that the causes and communities we care about have been compromised by antisemitism. I feel it too. But that’s the thing, isn’t it. Antisemitism is a malleable hatred — seeping its way from the edges of society into the places we feel most safe. And it can do that precisely because antisemitism does not belong to the left or the right, as much as it may make us feel better to assign blame. The journalist Michelle Goldberg once wrote, “For a huge number of antisemitic episodes, the political motive, if there is one, is illegible.” She cites a statistic shared by Jonathan Goldblatt, national director of the ADL, that 80% of the incidents they have documented cannot be attributed to any specific group or movement. While it finds its way into causes across the political spectrum, antisemitism belongs to none and all of them.
I am not here to adjudicate where the boundary exists between antisemitism and the social issues that it has become intertwined with, although this is an important conversation that we — as a community — need to continue having. To name it, to continually call it out, is one of our most powerful tools for combating it. However, I do want to talk about how the shadow of antisemitism has found its way into places that we once felt at home — and how that darkness weighs on all of us.
Speaking on antisemitism, the civil-rights activist Eric Ward explains that, “It distorts our understanding of how the actual world works. It isolates us. It alienates us from our communities, from our neighbors, and from participating in governance. It kills, but it also kills our society.” Because antisemitism can appear anywhere — from the dinner table to the bar, from the protest to the halls of government — it encourages us to withdraw from our friends and allies (non-Jew and Jew alike), to lock our doors and refuse entry to anyone who comes knocking. Antisemitism wants us to give up on the world we are trying to build, one where Jewish thriving is intertwined with the wellbeing of all people. It kills, as Eric Ward suggested, our society by driving disconnection and despair. There is a reason that there has been an uptick in antisemitism since October 7, as the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Gaza has rippled across the globe. The sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that antisemitism thrives in social malaise, in times of unease and uncertainty — and it works hard to perpetuate this environment.
It may feel like we can only be understood by other Jews (and even then, only some of them and only some of the time). This might be true. Our experience in this moment is particular, informed by the painful lessons of our shared history. But while locked doors may keep us safe, at least temporarily, they also prevent us from engaging with a world that will move no closer to the one we want to live in without our participation. In fact, our disconnection — from it and the people who live in it — only guarantees that the world will become worse.
Hanukkah has only two mitzvot (see: simple yet effective). The first is to light candles, one for each of the eight nights. The second is to put the lit hanukkiah in a doorway or a window, to pirsumei ha’neis, or “publicize the miracle”. Hanukkah is an invitation to resist the urge to retreat from the world, to replace the locked door with an illuminated window. It is a bold statement that we, us Jews, are here — not as an admonition of our fear but to say that despite the hatred we might face, we refuse to disappear. This is, after all, one of the stories of Hanukkah — a revolt against forces that sought to erase us, a small rag-tag group of freedom fighters overthrowing a repressive regime. You know the old saying: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. But Hanukkah is more than a commemoration of our survival — it is also an expression of hope for the future. Ellie Wiesel once said that Judaism is not simply a history of persecution, it is a history of responses to persecution. The candles of the hanukkiah not only shine a light on the past, but illuminate a path forward through the darkness we find ahead of us.
Because here’s the thing. We are not descendants of the Maccabees. Their history, of course, serves as the genesis of this holiday: a rebellion against the Seleucid Empire that ends — against all odds — with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the establishment of the last independent Jewish state in the land of Israel until 1948. Their fire was as righteous as it was terrible, consuming all enemies in its path — including, I might add, Jews they felt had become too Hellenized under centuries of Greek rule. No, the descendants of the Maccabees — often called zealots — died in a final blaze of glory at the hilltop fortress of Masada, facing off against the Roman Empire some two thousand years ago.
We, that is all of us Jews alive today (whether we came into this community by birth or by choice), are the descendants of the rabbis — and they tell a different story about Hanukkah: that when the Temple was reclaimed, when it once again could become the living spiritual heart of our people, our ancestors could only find one cruse of oil to light the menorah — yet that single jar somehow lasted eight whole nights, long enough for them to replenish their supply. It was a small miracle, yes, less history-making than the toppling of empires — and it was also an audacious expression of hope. They could have perceived the impossibility of the moment and given up. Anyone could see there wasn’t enough oil to last more than one night. Yet they still lit the menorah.
In the first story, no one wins: Greeks die, Jews die, and in the end the zealots die — their fire consumes everything in its path until it comes back to destroy them as well. And I get it, the temptation to burn it all down — especially when everything seems hopeless, especially when it feels like the entire world is out to get us. But if we burn it to the ground, it is nearly impossible for us to not also be caught in the conflagration. And while we might be safe for a moment, tucked away in our fortresses, we cannot keep the world out forever.
The rabbis propose a different way forward, one grounded in a radical commitment to our tradition’s vision of a better future: to insist on the world that we want to live in, even if that world is not what we find at our doorstep. We put the hanukkiah in the window, to remind us that we can — that we must! — be a light in the darkness, even if we are kindling those lights alone (and there will be moments when we are the only ones tending that light).
The first few nights of Hanukkah are, in some ways, my favorite. Yes, the final night — when the hanukkiah is fully lit, all eight candles plus the shamash burning bright — is beautiful (and very Instagrammable). But as we kindle one light, then two, then three, we watch how even a single flame has the ability to illuminate an entire room. And seen from the outside, how those small lights catch the attention of everyone passing by our homes. An uncompromising statement that we are here — and that we’re not going anywhere. An unwavering refusal to meet darkness in kind, but a commitment to create light instead. And the bold, over-two-thousand-year-old promise that we have not given up our hope for a better world.
Like our ancestors, we may not know if this light will last through the dark nights ahead. But this is the lesson of the rabbi’s story, the story we have inherited: that the only way we can find out is if we strike the match.