Fools for Judaism

Rava inquired: “Where the choice is between kindling a Hanukkah light and sanctification of Shabbat, what is the law? Is sanctification of Shabbat preferable since it is a frequent obligation, or perhaps kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle?” After Rava asked, he came and resolved it: “Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 23b).

Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday, and lighting Hanukkah candles is the only major mitzvah Jews are obligated to perform.   However, Rava concludes in the above text that lighting Hanukkah candles supersedes sanctifying Shabbat, because Hanukkah publicizes the miracle to the rest of the community. For a moment, consider the audacity of this statement. When Rava gives primary importance to lighting Hanukkah candles, he simultaneously elevates the importance of Hanukkah, while placing a challenge before us to openly profess our Judaism to others.

I started wearing a kippah every day at my public high school in Baltimore, Maryland at the beginning of my junior year, and I will never forget the first day I walked into school and saw my friends and teachers after I made this momentous change. I was proud of my decision, but scared about what others would think about me.  Yet over 15 years later, I am reminded that the choice to be open about Jewish observance remains a challenge in every generation.

Rabbi David Wolpe writes that the generation of Jews who created most of the Jewish institutions in North America were “natives” to Judaism, knowledgeable about core rituals and practices, even if they did not practice those rituals on a regular basis. However, Rabbi Wolpe writes that the Jews of today are “immigrants” to Judaism, “as uncomfortable praying in shul as our grandparents were watching football in America.” Our institutions were built by Jews who spoke Judaism as a first language, yet our institutions will thrive today by the extent to which they engage Jews who need to learn Judaism as a second language.

This reversal of the Jewish Community’s self-identity requires many elements of Jewish life to be rethought, yet the first thing that this trend must cause us to rethink is how we brand Judaism.  When Judaism is a first language, a person’s Jewish identity is affected by the way that he or she wants their identity to be seen by the outside world. However, when a person decides how much Judaism should infuse his or her identity, that person is determining what it means to choose the “brand” of Judaism. Regarding the power of branding, Douglas Atkins writes:

“A mere half a century ago, it was the producer that the brand legitimized- the origin and authenticity of the product. Today a brand legitimizes the consumer — the individual’s and community’s origin and authenticity. A brand is no longer a flat sign for corporate identification, a two-dimensional logo plastered on the outside of a bottle. Brands are distinctive markers of human identity” (The Culting of Brands, 115).

If the Jews of the past century were primarily concerned about what people thought about Jews and Judaism, the Jews of this century are primarily concerned about what choosing Judaism says about them.  Thus, in a world where most Jews do not speak Judaism as their first language, those Jews committed to transmitting Judaism to others must approach their task with a greater degree of compassion, enthusiasm, and evangelism.

Outside of Chabad, the Jewish Community seldom, if ever, speaks about evangelism as a best practice in Jewish organizational life, yet the reality is that Jewish institutions will only thrive in the twenty-first century if leaders will step outside of their comfort zone and unapologetically wear their faith on their sleeves.  Christianity has a term for this kind of religious devotion, “foolishness for Christ,” those who are willing to be counter-cultural to serve a deeper religious purpose.   Regarding this, the New Testament states, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (1 Corinthians 4:10).   A “fool for Christ” is a person who is unafraid of her or his faith, willing to publicly share what he or she loves and cares about with the rest of the world.   Faith is one of the most intimidate aspects of a person’s life, yet those who want to ensure that their faith will be embraced by others cannot keep faith in a closet; they must wear it on their sleeve. In other words, to inspire a generation of Jewish “immigrants” to embrace Judaism, Jewish leaders need to take a leap of action and be OK if more of us are “fools for Judaism.”

More than any other Jewish holiday, Hanukkah commands us to be public with our Judaism, not only to be unafraid about what others might think, but to ensure that under-engaged Jews increase their desire to be a part of our eternal covenant.   The challenge is for our institutions to transform how they tell the story of their brand, so that we might ensure that great miracles happen in ancient days and in our own time.   All the rest is commentary.

Hag Urim Sameah.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of Synagogue Leadership at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), where he is also the Director of the USCJ Convention. Josh obtained a certificate in educational leadership from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a certificate in non-profit management from Columbia Business School. Josh is a recipient of the Wexner Field Fellowship and the Ruskay Fellowship for Jewish Professional Leadership. Josh lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, Rabbi Yael Hammerman, and their children Hannah and Shai. You can read more of Josh's writings by visiting
Related Topics
Related Posts