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Rabbis Discuss Chanukah’s Significance During a Time of War and Antisemitism

Is Chanukah light during a dark Jewish time this year?

The question hung in the air over the phone. But it didn’t take long for rabbis to respond.

“Absolutely,” they said.

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To some, it’s a historical reminder of Jewish perseverance. To others, it’s a metaphor for light hanging on through the darkness. To many, it’s both.

Several Philadelphia-area rabbis weighed in on the holiday’s relevance to the current Jewish situation. Israel is at war with Hamas and antisemitism is rising around the world.

Rabbi Howard Cove (Photo by Monique Brand)

Rabbi Howard Cove, Beiteinu (Philadelphia area)

“Just the fact that we Jewish people have had to fight for what we believe in and what matters to us. It’s never easy. Here we go again,” Cove said.

The common enemy of Hamas is not unlike the common enemy of King Antiochus IV and the Greek Seleucid Empire, according to Cove. It has unleashed the spiritual energy of the Jewish people.

“When the Jews are united, it’s an amazing force,” he said.

There’s a line in the Haftorah that is most often quoted during Chanukah, according to Cove.

“Not by physical strength but by my spirit you shall exist and live.”

Rabbi Saul Grife (Courtesy of the Grife family)

Rabbi Saul Grife, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El (Elkins Park)

The Maccabean Revolt took place in the second century BCE, more than 2,000 years ago. And in every generation since, rabbis have searched for new reasons to observe Chanukah, according to Grife.

In America, reasons include its proximity to Christmas, its feeling of light during the cold season and the exchange of gifts, the rabbi explained. The Oct. 7 Hamas attack is a new, much more serious reason.

As Grife said that, he was watching hostages come home on television.

“Every hostage freed is a great miracle. Every life is a blessing. People are lining the streets and welcoming them back,” he said. “The light of strength, the light of hope, the light of faith is watching the Jewish people be released.”

“It’s one of the reasons why Chanukah should be cherished this year,” he added.

Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld, right (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld, Congregation B’nai Tikvah Beth Israel (Sewell, New Jersey)

Dvash Schoenfeld believes that Chanukah always interacts with the times. This year, though, it’s particularly relevant.

“This year, so many of us are in search of light, in search of hope, in search of peace, and those are the messages of Chanukah,” she said.

Dvash Schoenfeld explained that light contains “all the different colors of the rainbow inside it.”

“Some light you can see and some you can’t see as easily,” she added. “It’s the idea that light surrounds us. It’s just a question of us seeing it.”

There are two urgent lessons from Chanukah, according to Dvash Schoenfeld. One is that the oil in the menorah in the rededicated temple lasted for eight days when it was only supposed to last for one.

“Hope comes from God. Hope comes from beyond,” Dvash Schoenfeld said.

The other is that the Maccabees achieved victory over an empire.

“Hope comes from us doing. Hope comes from action,” the rabbi said. “This year, that message resonates on both levels.”

Rabbi Hersh Loschak, right (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Rabbi Hersh Loschak, Chabad at Rowan University (Glassboro, New Jersey)

The menorah is a symbol, according to Loschak.

“Love over hate and triumph over oppression,” he said.

Loschak’s Chabad house will organize a menorah lighting on campus with the president of Rowan. The rabbi said the Talmud emphasizes lighting it after nightfall and placing it in the window or doorway. That way, it can illuminate the outside world, too.

“No matter how dark it gets, light will prevail. It’s an analogy to love, kindness, Judaism, goodness,” he said.

Rabbi Eliott Perlstein (Courtesy of Rabbi Eliott Perlstein)

Rabbi Eliott Perlstein, Ohev Shalom of Bucks County (Richboro)

In the Talmud, rabbis discuss whether Jews should light their menorahs in the window during moments when they feel unsafe. The rabbis end up deciding that Jews should make their own decisions and protect their “safety and welfare” if necessary, Perlstein said.

At the same time, a menorah in the window makes “a profound statement,” the rabbi said.

“Here lives a Jewish family.”

“Those who want to light the menorah in their home this year are surely permitted to do so. Do what you need to do this year to celebrate the holiday and feel safe. There’s no reason to put yourself in harm’s way,” he concluded.

Jarrad Saffren December 6, 2023

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