A Two Thousand Year-Old Hanukkah Question

Spiritual Reflections

When lighting the Hanukkah candles, should one start by lighting all eight candles on the first night and then decrease the number of candles each successive night, or should one start by lighting one candle and increase towards eight?

For Hillel and Shammai, two of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, the world depended upon their answer.

Shammai took the “eight candles first” approach matching his worldview.  The world was once filled with light, he believed, but with each passing day it was steadily losing its shine.

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Hillel took the opposite position. His view: The world, while far from perfect, would get better with time.

Whose opinion should we follow?

It depends.

More than 20 years ago, when I was a rabbinical school student, there were a significant number of LGBTQ+ students who were beginning to realize their dreams of becoming Jewish clergy. At that time,  one of my most prominent seminary professors refused to sign the ordination documents of LGBTQ+ students. Gay marriage was barely talked about as a serious legal possibility. Most politicians, including then Sen. Obama, were formally against the legalization of same-sex marriage. In the Jewish community, officiating at gay wedding ceremonies was considered innovative to some, but taboo to others.

Today, the world is remarkably different. I remember when I performed my first wedding ceremony for two lesbian congregants, active leaders in our Southern congregation. There were rumors that some of the “older folks” might bristle. “Get ready for some pushback,” I was told. In the end, there was barely a peep. One older congregant told me after she heard about the ceremony, “It’s not for me, Rabbi, but if they love each other and they are making a Jewish life together — who am I to judge?”

And yet, 20 years ago, anti-Semitism seemed like a relic for the history books. When I learned in a yeshivah (Torah study academy) that the Talmud instructs a rabbi to caution a potential convert, “Are you sure you wish to make this choice given the fact that the Jewish people have been oppressed and persecuted?” I nearly scoffed at the question. To many the concern seemed antiquated and irrelevant.

After Charlottesville, Poway and Pittsburgh, who could possibly say that now? Anti-Semitism, the age-old disease, never went away. It simply hid under the covers.

So, what is the appropriate world-view for a person to take? Are we living in a time with expanded tolerance, understanding and equality as seen in the greater legal and social acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community? Or, are we approaching a nadir as seen in the frightening uptick in anti-Semitic acts?

The truth is, in every age, both phenomena exist at the same time. Our world is constantly spiraling in ways that increase the recognition of the Divine Image in every living being and, tragically, in ways that do exactly the opposite.

Seeing both of these dynamics in their era, Hillel and Shammai had to make a choice. Should one see the world as traveling towards inevitable disaster (Shammai) or, as hard as it can be to see, inching its way forward towards greater perfection (Hillel)?

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In the end, it came down to faith. Hillel, the winner of this holy debate, commands us to light an ever-increasing number of candles because he believed that this world can, and will, be better.

As the great rabbi Maimonides taught, “Even though the Messiah may tarry, still I wait.”

This Hanukkah when you pass a Hanukkiah and see an ever-increasing number of candles in the window, I invite you to remember Hillel’s great teaching. The decision to bring more light into the world, against all odds, was a matter of faith.

Now, we must go forward and do the holy work of spreading the light of love, kindness and tolerance, helping it to increase.

Was Hillel right? The world is waiting, and depending on us for the answer.

Wishing all a light and faith-filled holiday season!

Rabbi Eric M. Solomon serves as the senior clergy member for Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, N.C.

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