By Date

Dear Friends,

Differing perspectives can often make decision making slower and more challenging than it might otherwise be. It can also be frustrating as differing perspectives compete and conflict with one another.

And yet, the creative tension from such disagreement can ultimately yield a more thoughtful and long-lasting result.

But what happens when those disagreements turn toxic?

What do we do when one or both sides of an argument begin to vilify the other?

How do we manage a situation when people put more energy into disagreements than working to find common ground?

And how do we move forward when people begin to label those who see the world differently as the “enemy” rather than people who hold a different worldview?

When that happens- when the art of debate is lost and working cooperatively is no longer the ultimate goal – the very fabric of the community begins to fray. People dig deeper and deeper into their tribal perspective.

It may sound like I am reflecting on the state of American (un)civil society in 2021. But I am, in fact, describing our own Jewish community in the months and years that preceded the events captured in the Chanukah story.

The story is usually understood as a conflict between the Maccabees and the Seleucids under the leadership of Antiochus and, as the Talmud makes clear, it was that.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest), but which contained sufficient [oil] for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein, and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. —Shabbat 21b

But it was more than that. When Antiochus and his forces arrived in the Land of Israel, they sought to impose Hellenistic culture on the residents of the land. Internal friction already existed between Jewish community members with regard to how our tradition should be observed, and the arrival of the Greeks added fuel and momentum to that process. There were some Jews who were more than happy to take on the trappings of Greek culture. They did not walk toward Antiochus; they ran. Others, however, rejected Greek culture and became more and more deeply entrenched in their refusal to make any accommodations to their new reality.

The divisions became so bad that the community essentially split. Those who rejected Greek culture felt betrayed by the Hellenizers and began to see them as the enemy. It became so bad that the opening “shot” of the war that ultimately resulted in the Festival of Chanukah was violence within the Jewish community itself. As the 1st Book of Maccabees notes, after Mattathias and his sons refused to obey an order to bow down to an idol…

…a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal, and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time, he killed the king’s officer, who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus, he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri, son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town.

And while I am not endorsing the decision of some Jews to bow down to Greek idols, far from it, I cannot help but think that such a violent response BETWEEN members of the Jewish community was made possible by the divisions that already existed within the community. Everyone was so dug into their perspective that it became inconceivable that they might have a heated but respectful debate that was focused on finding common ground.

Perhaps that is why the Talmud recorded an extensive debate over how the Chanukah candles should be lit.

Our sages taught: The mitzvah of Chanukah is a candle for a man and his household, and those who enhance (mehadrin): a candle for each person. And those who really enhance (mehadrin min hamehadrin): Bet Shammai says: On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease, and Bet Hillel says: On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase. (BT Shabbat 21b)

It is a remarkable piece of text in its own right but perhaps it is more than that. Perhaps that text was intended as a reminder that debate whether over something as seemingly insignificant as how one lights the Chanukah menorah or as impactful as disagreement over how much accommodation should be made to the larger society, is a good thing. Perhaps the rabbis wanted to remind us that no matter how much we may disagree, so long as we are engaged with one another respectfully, there is still the possibility to maintain a sense of communal cohesion. And perhaps it was a warning that when we vilify those with whom we disagree, we plant the seeds for violence.

Ultimately, the rabbis wanted us to understand that the only path that maintains our communal bonds is the path of respectful disagreement. And through that text, they reminded us that when we are committed to civil discourse, we bring light into the world.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen


A communal Menorah Lighting in Spiotta Park in South Orange on November 30th at 5:30pm AND in Maplewood on Thursday, December 2nd, at 5pm, at the Gazebo at the Hilton Branch of the Maplewood Library at 1688 Springfield Ave.

A special Chanukah concert with Nefesh Mountain on December 2. (We are thrilled to be partnering with SOPAC as they continue to recover from a recent flood.)

A special Chanukah Havdalah in the campground (weather permitting) on Saturday December 4th at 4pm.

And a special Shabbat Service next week-December 3rd at 6:00 pm. That service will take place ONLINE ONLY. Please join the rest of our community online and have your Chanukah menorah ready to light so that from the comfort of our own homes, we can all light our menorahs together. (Special points for the most creative Chanukah menorah that ACTUALLY “WORKS”.)