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Candle of Jewish unity brings light to family of nations

Peter, Paul and Mary had a Christmas gig one year at Carnegie Hall. They wanted something for their Jewish fans, so Paul and Mary turned to Peter — the Jew, after all — and asked, “Can’t you write a Chanukah song?”

Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle” became a Chanukah standard, even though it doesn’t have a lot to do with the holiday. It expresses an expansive Jewish vision of repairing the world, whereas the victory celebrated by Chanukah was really about the Jewish people turning inward.

“Am levadad yishkon — A people that dwells apart,” Balaam called us in the Torah.

But we don’t dwell apart, not physically, anyway. We’ve always lived among others. And, since Abraham and Sarah entered Canaan, Jews have grappled with the dilemma of how to fulfill our destiny as a people while living among a “family of nations.”

The tension between “dwelling apart” and coalescing with our neighbors was present in the “fleshpots of Egypt,” in Spain, North Africa, Europe, and of course, in the goldene medina of America. It is an ongoing theme in the Torah and a preoccupation of the prophets. It is at the heart of the Chanukah story — a civil war between Hellenizers (who embraced Greek/secular ways) and traditionalists.

The tensions that erupted in the Chanukah story were captured 150 years later by Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Hillel connected these two seemingly contradictory comments for a reason. The tension between self-preservation and caring for others comes with the human condition. We have a set of guidelines to help us navigate that tension; it’s called Judaism.

When the stakes are higher, the dilemma feels more acute and distrust grows. So it was in the conflicts with the Greeks and the Romans. And so it was when the “Hillel paradox” erupted during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense — Israel’s response to hundreds of rockets fired against Israeli civilians from Gaza.

In her congregational e-newsletter, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles expressed solidarity with the people of Israel, but also addressed her heartache over the loss of life on both sides, writing that “…supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

Her comments inspired condemnation from Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who in a Nov. 18 piece in the Times of Israel described Brous’ concern with Palestinian victims as an “inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity.” Gordis suggests that many American Jews “dare not care about ourselves any more than we [care] about others.”

Gordis’ article provoked a stream of responses. Gordis, Brous and their respondents each, in their own way, address the Chanukah dilemma of dwelling apart while living among the nations.

The Hillel paradox is a given; how we deal with it is up to us. While struggling against Greek and Roman occupation, Jews spent a lot of time, energy and blood fighting among themselves. This, the rabbis of the Talmud suggest, caused the destruction of the Second Temple.

Today, writes educator Sivan Zakai, referring to our inability to engage in civil discourse about Israel, “Jews on the left have been excoriated as traitors or self-hating Jews, while Jews on the right have been castigated as racists or immune to the suffering of others.” Zakai describes teachers and students in Jewish schools who avoid discussing (and, therefore, learning about) Israel. “When talking about Israel, I no longer feel comfortable being the only adult in the room,” one teacher reported.

Debates over how Israel should deal with its neighbors will continue to rage within Israel. And debates about how we as American Jews should respond will continue here. These debates are healthy, as long as they don’t devolve into the kinds of attacks Zakai describes. Too often, they do. And what is most troubling is when that poisonous atmosphere spills into our schools.

There is a way out. As we are inspired by the courage of the Maccabees, so, too, we can learn from their mistakes. When embroiled in conflict, we must not compound it with a “war between the Jews.” We need one another. Especially when we are in conflict, we need one another.

“Light one candle,” wrote Peter Yarrow, “for the strength that we need to never become our own foe.”

David Waksberg is CEO of Jewish LearningWorks, the S.F.-based organization formerly known as the Bureau of Jewish Education.

David Waksberg
David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.