On Chanukah, religious freedom and public faith
07 Dec 2018

On Chanukah, religious freedom and public faith

Dear friends and families,

I was part of a panel discussion at a symposium last week in Ottawa, organized by the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute. Cardus is a Christian think tank, and I had gotten involved in this interfaith effort at the request of CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, after meeting with the institute’s director, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, in the fall of 2017. The symposium explored the themes of the role of religion in the public square, and the intersection between Jewish Law (halacha) and Civil Law in Canada. It was a pleasure to be involved, and it was a great forum to highlight some of the leading challenges and opportunities that we face as Jewish Canadians in living a public faith.

What follows is a blend of some of the prepared remarks I delivered at the symposium, where I was asked to reflect on how Jewish education connects with religious freedom and public faith; and some related thoughts on the depths of meaning contained in the holiday of Chanukah.

Before reading further, I have to offer an apology of sorts. Normally, my writing is served with a healthy side of shmaltz. However, given that we have enough oil over Chanukah, I’ll give your arteries a break – this is more of an academic and wonkish opinion piece.

We live in a time and place where the right to religious freedom affords us both the opportunities to be as knowledgeable and deeply religious as we want, or, conversely, to choose to be as secularized and superficially knowledgeable as we want. We don’t live in ghettos anymore, we can cross over easily into Canadian society, and we are generally more comfortable with the mores, values and customs of Canadian and American culture (and pop culture) than we are of Jewish culture. Rashi, Rambam, Talmud and Pirkei Avot will lose time and again against the likes of PewDiePie, Logan Paul, Fortnite and YouTube.  It’s not even a close contest.

When I was doing my masters in Jewish Education, one of my course requirements was to read the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and it changed things for me. Cultural literacy is a term coined by E. D. Hirsch, referring to the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture. In his book, Hirsch argues that children in the U.S. are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society. Basically, Cultural literacy is the background information we need to know in order to understand and to communicate in our society; it’s a passport of sorts. Absent the basic information contained within a culture, you can’t take part in said culture. For example, even if a student has a basic competence in the English language, he or she has little chance of entering the the American mainstream without knowing what a silicon chip is, who Abraham Lincoln was, or when the Civil War was fought.

Hirsch’s book framed the enormity of the challenge of Jewish education for me, which I see as a three-tiered challenge:

  1. Absent a basic Jewish education, our Jewish kids will not be able to understand and communicate in our Jewish world, and they will leave it behind; therefore
  2. Educate our students sufficiently so at minimum, they can function within Jewish society, and navigate and find meaning in our many traditions and culture. At a higher level, they contribute as well to the fabric of the Jewish community and the Jewish experience; and
  3. Educate our students sufficiently so they can use their basic Jewish knowledge to function within, and add to, contemporary society. This level is a game-changer in my opinion, and is the embodiment of the two concepts of the mitzvah of kiddush ha-Shem (the commandment to sanctify the name of God), and to be an or lagoyim– “a Light To The Nations”.

From an etymological perspective, Chanukah and chinuch (education) share a common shoresh (root): chet, nun, chaf. Chanukah is defined as “dedication,” as in the re-dedication of the Beit HaMikdash after the Jews defeated the Greek Assyrians. At its core, the battle was about the freedom to practice our Jewish religion, and about Jewish identity.  Dedication to education is how we fight this particular war, how we prepare our children to take on the world as proud, knowledgeable Jews.

So yes, as we did this week with our first-ever Hebrew Foundation School Chanukah on Ice, we proudly go out into the wider community, the public square, and we light our chanukiyot in public places, safe and secure in our Judaism here in Canada.  It’s beautiful, and it’s important, but it’s only a start.

I’ll leave us all with a Chanukah thought about where we need to go from here, as written by Rabbi Yaakov Glasser of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future:

“Chanukah accentuates the threshold between the Jewish home and the public domain. Both the position of the menorah and the timing of lighting relate to the ritual act of observance, as well as to the distinction between our own internal home environment and the outside world. We ideally light the menorah in the doorway of our home, or minimally at a window through which we can project the light out into the street. The lighting takes place specifically during a period of time when people are ‘in the street.’ The religious and cultural crisis that ultimately led to the Chanukah story has much to do with the challenge of living a unique Jewish life within the larger environment of the outside world. Total isolation is virtually impossible, while complete integration has shown to be an almost certain path toward assimilation. Clearly, our capacity to survive and thrive within the framework of a society that is characterized by its own ideals and culture is contingent upon our ability to discern and filter, embrace and reject; to relate to the complexity and nuance of the world around us.”

Chag sameach, Chanukah sameach!