It’s that time of the year again: the days are getting shorter, and consequently the nights are getting longer. Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ and Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ are being played on the radio ad infinitum, and the streets are decorated with Christmas ornaments, and lots and lots of lights.
While this time of the year apparently (if we are to believe the lyrics of the songs) evokes a longing for love, it also seems to enhance people’s urge to bring light into the darkness.
Symbols of light
Historically, light can symbolize various things. First of all, it symbolizes hope. When we want to encourage someone who is in a difficult period of his life, we tell him that “there is light at the end of the tunnel”.
But light also symbolizes truth and wisdom. A person who has come to a new insight says that ‘they have seen the light”. And the 18th-century movement that advocated the use of reason as opposed to religious dogma and superstition was called ‘the Enlightenment’.
We Jews have our own ‘Festival of Lights’: Chanukah. For eight days we light the Chanukiah (the nine-branched candelabrum) to commemorate the fact that the oil, which was supposed to keep the Menorah in the Beit HaMikdash lit for one day, lasted for 8 days. This was particularly special since the Temple had recently been desecrated by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
The Chanukiah itself is also an interesting object: it consists of eight branches plus an extra branch, the shammash. ‘Shammash’ means ‘attendant’ and tradition tells us that the eight candles should be lit with this ‘attendant’. Moreover, halakha (Jewish prescription) tells us that the eight candles should be placed at an equal height, none higher or lower than the other. It isn’t easy to find an explanation for this halakha, but it certainly brings to mind the idea that the Chanukiah is a very democratic object.
Absolute truth and relative truth
When you think about light as a symbol of the truth, then the requirement that the eight lights be equal in height, means that no candle has more of a claim to the truth than its neighboring candle. Also, its light does not come from itself, but from something which assists him: the shammash. This gives the candles a certain humility: they did not light themselves, but were lit by something that was different from them.
If the Chanukiah symbolizes the Jewish people and the shammash symbolizes G-d, than no Jew has a greater claim to the truth than any other Jew. Absolute truth only lies in the realm of G-d, and therefore earthly truth can only be relative.
This distinction between ‘absolute truth’ and ‘relative truth’ can also be found in the philosophy of Plato. Plato talks about the realm of ‘the finite’ and the realm of ‘the infinite’. The realm of the finite is the realm of this world we humans live in. The realm of the infinite on the contrary, is the G-dly realm.
It is in the realm of the infinite, the G-dly, that we find ‘the good’, ‘the truth’ or ‘the beautiful’. Since the realm of the truth is situated outside of our worldly, human realm, it is not directly accessible to us. Therefore, the truth is not something we can just ‘grab’. It has to be given to us. It requires a sincere focus on G-d and it requires patience. And even when we ‘receive’ the truth, it is only a spark of the absolute truth which lies in the G-dly realm. Because of our inherent finitude on this earth, our human truths are also finite. Our beliefs are always subject to what philosopher of science Karl Popper called ‘falsification’. One of the main characteristics of fundamentalism (of all sorts) is that it doesn’t see this dynamic. In their enthusiasm, fundamentalists try to ‘grab’ the truth and establish it on earth, with all sorts of negative and often dangerous consequences.
However, this does not mean that we should see our outlook on the truth as irrelevant and meaningless, and hide our opinions for one another. I once went to a Jewish institute with fellow Jews who came from a variety of religious backgrounds and were quite diverse in their beliefs on what Judaism is or how it should be. At the start of the course, one of the people working there advised us to be sensitive to one another’s opinion, yet at the same time not to walk on eggshells, and dare to show who we are and what we think.
I loved this message, because it implied a dual responsibility: to listen to what people have to say and not get defensive right away when it’s something you don’t like. And when it’s your own turn: to speak your mind freely and not get defensive when it’s something other people don’t like. It made our convictions of what’s true and what’s not relative. It created an atmosphere of mildness, respect and yet also self-confidence.
Human beings have a desire to bring light into the darkness, to shed light on what is hidden, to find out truth and the meaning of life. This is a good thing. It is what makes us passionate and not indifferent about life and the world. It is how humanity grows in the course of history, and it is what makes conversations between people exciting. This -shedding light- is also what the Chanukah candles do when they are lit. However, ideas about the truth should always carry an element of humility in themselves, since ‘absolute truth’ only lies in the realm of G-d. Or, if we relate it to the Chanukiah: the lights of the candles do not come from themselves, but from the shammash.