What Would Judah Macabee Do?

Monday, December 26, 2016
Posted by: Rabbi Jill Levy

Rabbi Israel Salanter stated: “Any rabbi whose congregation never considered firing him [her] is no rabbi. Any rabbi whose congregation does fire him [her] is no mensch.

This statement captures the essence of the debate – should rabbis become involved in politics? On one hand, if rabbis do not take a stand to lend a voice to contemporary issues, then are they really engaging in leadership? On the other hand, the rabbi’s role is to welcome members of the entire Jewish community, and how can one do that in a mench-like way if he or she isn’t able to address the needs of all of their constituents?

This question has recently been a hot topic in wake of the U.S. Presidential election. Questions arose such as, "Should rabbis talk about the election in their High Holiday sermons?" This article presents both sides. 

For Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi at perhaps America’s most political synagogue — Cleveland Park’s Adas Israel….the answer was clear. Steinlauf said he will speak about the election on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Steinlauf said, “I’m going to directly encourage people to get out and vote... (and) I am lifting up a Jewish discussion of the times that we live in.

On the other hand, Rabbi David Greenspoon at Congregation Sha’are Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Leesburg Va., said he’s afraid he would be seen as endorsing a candidate if he even talked about issues or values. If he talked about the election, he says, “People would be on the edge of their seats waiting to pounce.” Instead he’ll talk about parenting children and about caring for elderly parents.

Many other blogs about rabbis and political proliferation are talking about this as well. "Should rabbis discuss politics in the synagogue?" and "Can rabbis endorse political candidates?

This ageless question is also found in the earliest texts about the meaning of Hanukkah. The events of Hanukkah, which take place around 165BCE, were a major turning point in the relationship with the Seleucid Empire that ruled the land of Israel at that time. Needless to say, Judah Macabee would not have voted for King Antiochus. During the king’s reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was defiled and certain Jewish practices were prohibited. The Macabees rebelled, fought against the religious persecution and ultimately won a tough battle that ended in the rededication of the Temple and were able to, once again, light its menorah. (Curious to learn more about Jewish text and holidays? Check out the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Classes resume January 9).

The Al HaNisim prayer, which is added into our daily prayer and the grace after meals during Hanukkah, states, “We are grateful for the miracles…and the battles that you fought for our ancestors in those days… when the evil Greek kingdom arose against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah. You delivered the strong hands into the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure.” One message of Hanukkah is that we must become engaged in politics when our own religious freedom is at stake.

At the same time, many of us think of another narrative as the center piece of Hanukkah. The story that there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day but, instead, it lasted for eight (BT Shabbat 21b). One of the reasons why this text may have dominated as the central Hanukkah message is because the rabbis of the Talmud understood the danger of becoming too engaged with politics, personally and nationally. Instead, the rabbis argue, we should concentrate on God’s role in our spiritual lives, which is constant and unchanging. 

These stories shed light (pun intended) on our contemporary debate. The act of lighting Hanukkah candles occurs at the darkest time of year. When we light that first candle, the light radiates the dark and builds each subsequent night. Our job is to create the light in the midst of darkness. We primarily bring this light through the teaching of Torah and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Initially, we do this with a focus on the spiritual, as the rabbis suggest. At the same time, we are continuously aware that there are times in our history when more political participation is needed. If the light of our spiritual or physical lives is at risk, then we need to make sure it keeps burning. Each of us has to decide when, and if, that line needs to be drawn.

As we lit the first candle on our hanukkiot, adding the shecheyanu blessing which thanks God for helping us to reach this moment in time, we reflect on this past year. Let’s ask ourselves: 

  • What are we grateful for?
  • What religious freedoms do we currently have in this country and how can we ensure that they continue for us and for others?
  • Where do we need more light in the world and how can I help bring it?

We'd love to hear from you! Share with us some of your answers to these questions in the comments below.  

Category: CJLL