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Emulating the menorah: Jewish unity through diversity

Jews are not going to agree on everything, but it is vital that we recognize what each 'branch' of the Jewish 'menorah' has to offer

After the shooting in Squirrel Hill, I lamented our tendency to unite only in response to tragedy and loss. I don’t mean to undersell the challenge. It’s easy to look at Jews with different philosophies, practices, and politics and say, “They are different.” It’s convenient to dismiss alternative approaches to serving G-d as illegitimate. It’s simple to draw lines and erect mental boundaries and make our fellow Jews something strange and other from ourselves. It’s practical to view Jewish communal resources (e.g., dollars, prospective students, parishioners, etc.) as a zero-sum game. It’s satisfying to read the results of the Pew Report as a referendum on which denomination is “winning” and which is “losing.”

But where does that leave us? Fractured. Competitive. Resentful. And perhaps most of all—vulnerable, from within and without.

This all has weighed heavily on my mind. It may seem out of place to bring the uncomfortable reality of divisiveness to light on Chanuka—a holiday of celebration, of Hallel, of latkes, of presents, of decorations, of light, of Jewish pride. Why diminish the festive spirit by focusing on what divides us? In truth, though, Chanuka has much to say on the topic of achieving unity while honoring our diversity. Allow me to share two insights into Chanuka that speak to this:

Even on the most rudimentary level, the central ritual of this holiday points to this message. The candles of the menorah branch out into eight separate points of light, and yet they are all joined together at one, unified base. The symbolism isn’t subtle: all of our separate ways are valuable, the candles and oil tell us. They may jut out in different directions, but they are fundamentally joined in purpose. While Jews will certainly have their differences—and while different groups, communities, and denominations might adopt different tactics and strategies that work best for them—we are unified in our desire to connect with God and make the world a better place. Can we make the choice to view our fellow Jews in this way?

But we can learn this lesson even more starkly from another example of the practical requirements of the Chanuka commemoration. There’s a debate cited in the Gemara in Shabbos: how is the mitzvah of lighting  the menorah actually fulfilled, from a halachic perspective? Is the mitzvah in the act of hadlaka, kindling the fires and creating light? Or is the mitzvah in hanachah, displaying that light and publicizing the miracle and how we commemorate it?

Rabbi Lamm of Yeshiva University once shared a powerful idea to resolve this question, and the answer has resonated with me ever since I first heard it. It is not hadlakah or hanachah that is required—it’s hadlakah and hanachah. For the Jewish people to work—for us to shine our light as bright as can be—we need both kindlers, those who do the deep work of substance creation, and the carriers, those with the capability to bring that substance to the world. Rabbi Lamm’s beautiful vort (idea)  points to this same important yet elusive ideal: how can we find a way to see each part as a distinct yet integral portion of the whole, as opposed to something “other than”—or worse, at odds with—the Judaism that we subscribe to.

A monolithic Judaism is an inauthentic Judaism. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree on everything, or universally condone each other’s behavior. But it is vitally important to recognize and honor what each “branch” of the Jewish “menorah” has to offer.

I, for example, don’t agree on every principle of IKAR, a progressive synagogue here in LA. But I deeply respect and value their work in bringing Jews closer to their identities with love and acceptance. I also don’t agree on some of the Agudah’s conclusions about Orthodox life, but I deeply appreciate the work that they do in creating a strong platform and identity from which religious Jews can engage with the world.

Of course, we should understand and be proud of our own approaches.

But can we be humble enough to say that even if we choose a different path for ourselves, we see and celebrate the value of a different path for others? Not just that that other path is good for them, and good for the Jewish people as a whole, but that it’s actually helpful to us; the actions of our fellow Jews forces us to get better in our own service to Hashem.

Even just within the Orthodox community, I see us struggling with this. I see us at each other’s throats, eager to divide and dismiss. Can we choose another way of seeing? Can “Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews” we see how Chovevei Torah makes Yeshiva University better by forcing them to engage as broadly as possible; how YU makes the Jewish Theological Seminary better; how Agudah makes the Orthodox Union better?

I see this even within my own Los Angeles Orthodox community. Everyone is proud of their school and their shul.  That’s a wonderful thing—it’s good to have affinity for your own institutions. But what’s the tone of that conversation? Does it become a competition? About who is best and who is worst? Or do we view all of our communal institutions in the spirit of “all boats rise.” “I’m proud of my school/shul, and I’m genuinely happy that there are other schools/shuls that are strong and serving others in my community. When taken together, we form a strong, resilient, powerful and passionate Jewish community!” Can we try that on for size?

Can we say, “This Jew is a carrier of light, and I am a kindler”? This Jew focuses on Torah study and this one on repairing the world? Can we accept that without both of us, we would all be in darkness?

Frankly, we must. We can’t wait for another tragedy like Pittsburgh to bring us together, or hold out in stubbornness against unity until idols stand in the Beit Hamikdash. Embracing pluralistic unity is a fundamental struggle of our generation, and we must all work toward this together, and in a positive spirit.

It is true that some more radical elements sometimes fail to reciprocate whatever gestures of reconciliation we make to them. But that is neither material to our intent of unity, nor by any means a permanent state of being. The total Torah community must be diverse, it must be pluralistic, it must never be single-minded.

A united Jewish people does not mean an identical Jewish people; it never has, and it never will. Each of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs specialized in their own middot, and Hillel and Shamai certainly rarely agreed—but they respected each other and understood the value of the other.

So this Chanuka, let’s not be frustrated or upset by the divergence of opinion in the Jewish community. Let us embody the menorah and embrace our individuality—let us make light together, each in our own uniquely dedicated way.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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