There are people in the world espousing views of utter darkness. Where you might light a candle—or eight candles—to help a stranger find his or her way at sundown, others would snuff out the flame, preferring neighbors to stumble in the dark. Some of those people already have power and seek to expand it; some feel so powerless that they lash out at those they deem weaker than themselves.
Hanukkah actually poses a dilemma about how to think about power and light. On the one hand, the Maccabees we remember this week were extremists. Take away our power to celebrate the unique light of Jewishness, they said, and we will fight you to the death in order to protect it. We won’t compromise. We won’t negotiate. We will fight for the light.
And on the other hand, particularly in much of the Judaism of North America, Hanukkah is one of the most visible markers of Jewish openness to the rest of the world. Menorahs mix freely with other symbols of light and celebration in the windows of stores, in communal space and— most importantly—in our families themselves. So what is it, a holiday of extremism or a holiday of pluralism?
Maybe we need to embrace both. Maybe Judaism today needs to play two roles.
The first is defining boundaries—that Jews are a tribe of unique purpose and traditions, continually evolving over the ages, and that this tribe actually has something to say about justice, time, meaning, and peoplehood that no other tribe has said in just that way. With the miraculous emergence of Israel as a modern Jewish homeland in our lifetimes, this role is even clearer.
Then there is pluralism, where we seek universal connections between what we have carried forward over thousands of years into who and what we are now, and more importantly, what we will be in generations to come. We want to open the door to diversity at a time when the purveyors of darkness would prefer a world of closed doors.
At JCCs we want to open our doors wide to the community—not just our Jewish community, but to everyone to whom we can be of meaning and use. The JCC is not only a place of significant Jewish connection for those who define themselves as Jews, but also serves as a welcome mat to Jewish values, ideas, culture and history for millions of non-Jewish co-travelers every year.
The York Jewish Community Center bears an enormous sign above its door. Emblazoned across the yellow banner in bright red, reads: EVERYONE is WELCOME at the JCC. And truly, everyone is. York does not sacrifice Jewish mission even as this JCC is the community center for an entire town, population 43,935.
The DCJCC, in our nation’s capital, offers GLOE, the Kurlander Program for GLBT Outreach & Engagement. It’s a successful program that has helped welcome GLBT community into the Jewish community in such a way that no one blinks at the mention of Hanukkah programs such as “Faygelehs & Bagelehs” or “Oh Gaydel, Gaydel, Gaydel, Gaydel,” (brunch and happy hour, respectively).
And the St. Paul JCC was one of five national winners of the 2014 Ruderman Prize, recognized for its disability-geared programs that have included a wellness initiative, a teen camp, an evening activity club and a support program for siblings of people with disabilities.
As a people who have been subjected to exclusion—and much worse—throughout the centuries, Jews can and should cry out when they hear and see a bitterly familiar language of hate and fear directed toward others. We rightly take pride in these and so many other JCC programs that reflect missions of inclusion offering hope and light in these short, dark days.
Maybe the solution for living in the balance between chosenness and openness lies in extreme pluralism, shining a light into every corner of our tribal, familial, cultural traditions and at the same time asking, how can this be of use to the world? What lessons can our uniqueness teach? How can we fight to preserve our own special light by sharing it?
The light of Hanukkah shines on the inside and the outside, ancient and contemporary, universal and particular. Let’s let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.