When explaining the roots of Hanukkah, the Rabbis of the Talmud faced an important decision.
Would they focus on the canister of oil that should have illuminated the Jerusalem Temple’s candelabra for only one night but ended up lasting for eight?
Or, would they emphasize how a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, heroically rebelled against their oppressors, defeated them and rededicated the once-desecrated sanctuary?
A quick glance at the Talmud’s description reveals that, although the Maccabean victory filled the rabbis with pride, the “canister-of-oil” narrative pretty much won the day.
From the rabbis’ perspective, it was much better to wait for God’s hand than to initiate a fight. They chose the safe route: prayerful hope over acts of confrontation.
A few years ago, this rabbinic decision came to mind when I sat with the parents of a young transgender child. They loved their child immensely and were clear, after much thoughtful work, that they supported their child’s transition as honoring his Divine image. No matter what.
But, in the midst of the North Carolina HB2 fiasco, they were angry and perplexed. They asked, “How could politicians use our precious child as a political football? Have they no compassion?”
With those prophetic questions in mind, the North Carolina Jewish community had its own choice to make. While there was near-universal condemnation of HB2, there were differences in how to combat it. Should we offer sermons, teachings and prayers about LGBTQ rights within our synagogues? Or, should we organize ourselves and speak out?
We chose both. Congregational leaders began to educate communities about the harmful repercussions of HB2 and offered prayers of inspiration. Boards of major Jewish organizations took public stands against it. And, over 40 rabbis signed a statement denouncing the bill, eventually leading to a press conference and rousing prayer service at the state legislature.
Two thousand years ago, when it came to describing the Hanukkah story, it is true that the rabbis favored the long-lasting canister of oil. But, they also understood there was something miraculous about the gutsy willingness of the Jewish people to speak truth to power. In the end, the Hanukkah miracle was not an either/or. It took both prayer and resistance to dispel the darkness of injustice.
This Hanukkah, may these two narratives remind us that the creation of every human being is a miracle, and it is our responsibility to protect that miracle through our soulful prayers and our committed actions.
Wishing all who celebrate a festive, light-filled and miraculous Hanukkah!
info: Rabbi Eric Solomon, the spiritual leader of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, N.C. serves on the national board of Truah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.