Hanukkah has been for as long as I can remember one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Throughout my life different aspects of the holiday celebration stood out to me. When I was a child I loved playing dreidel and getting Chanukah gelt (tin foil wrapped chocolate coins) and singing Chanukah songs with my family. As time went on I was mesmerized by the miraculous story of the oil that lasted eight nights instead of only one and as a teenager I thought it was so cool that there was a holiday that celebrated Jewish military might and victory as a bright light on a rather depressing and tragic timeline of Jewish history. During the past few years I have begun to appreciate Chanukah for yet another element that I believe plays a crucial role in today’s society.
Oxford University Press published earlier this year a remarkable book authored by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. The book is the result of an in-depth study done of 230 emerging adults (ages 18-23) from a broad array of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The research gives us a glimpse into the contemporary value system that young adults are embracing and calling their own. It is one marked by incredible display of moral individualism and an equally serious inclination towards moral relativism. One quote from an interview recorded in the book succinctly demonstrates this phenomenon. The interviewee is discussing the morality of slavery and comments:
“Who am I judge? I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at the time. I wasn’t alive then, so I can’t really pas judgment on it, though in today’s world I would think it’d be utterly ridiculous, like I wouldn’t agree with it. But, like I said, it’s society, it changes.”
- Lost in Transition, pp. 27-28
It is within this cultural milieu that Chanukah enters and makes a remarkable statement: There are things in life that are so important that you have to be willing to stake your life on them. The first step is to discover what are those things in your life that are inviolable. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil and it is a time for family gathering and dreidel games and chocolate gelt but even more than all that it is an annual reminder to first discover and then fortify the things we hold so truly dear and precious, that define us as who we are down to the very deepest level of our being.
Dr. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal which poignantly made this point. He wrote the following:
“But as the story of the martyrs shows, the victory was also associated with the heroic dedication of the Jewish traditionalists of the time to their God and his Torah. If Hanukkah celebrates freedom, it is a freedom to be bound to something higher than freedom itself.”
We can and must celebrate our generation’s openness to new ideas and genuine respect for the different viewpoints and perspectives that our society, in the words of Professor Diana L. Eck, acting like an exquisite jazz composition brings forward and yet we also must affirm our core identities and be able to civilly assert our unique perspectives into the public square. We can draw on the narrative of Chanukah to strengthen us in this endeavor and by so doing be able to be both compassionate listeners and appreciators of the perspectives of others and articulate and passionate advocates for our own unique values, viewpoints and perspectives.