Tonight, like every night of Chanukah, we will stand facing our windows and light our menorahs in full view of the street. We do this because of the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle. On Chanukah, we don’t limit the light we create to our own homes and families, but project it outward, spilling our light into the world beyond. This public act is a beautiful personification of our larger goal as Jews, to serve as an ohr la’goyim, a light unto the nations. But what happens when we grapple with communal issues that expose our darkness rather than our light? Should we frame these in the window, or hide them in the dark?
In my work at the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), I am often asked about the issue of chilul Hashem, or desecrating G-d’s name. After all, at ORA we talk about issues related to abuse and divorce, about when systems fail, and about what we, as a community, need to do better. It’s not the prettiest picture of Judaism, and we have yet to be invited to any Kiruv Shabbatons. But in many ways, both Chanukah and our work at ORA beg a bigger question: What image of Judaism should we be portraying to the wider world? Should we emphasize the wonderful aspects of our tradition, and leave the rest to handle in private? What does it mean to be a light in the figurative sense?
Pirsuemei Nisa is all about making menorah lighting a communal, even performative, experience. As the Gemara in Shabbat writes, “It is a mitzvah to place [the candles] at the door of one’s house, on the outside, and if one is living in an attic, place it in a window facing the public area” (Talmud Shabbat 21b:8). The purpose of this public lighting is to spread the word about the miracles G-d performed in the Chanukah story–a spiritual public relations campaign, if you will. But this requirement to publicize G-d’s providence is not only contained to Chanukah–the Mishneh Torah tell us that “it is mandatory upon the whole house of Israel to sanctify [G-d’s] Great Name, for it is said, ‘And I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel’” (Mishneh Torah, Found. of the Torah 5-6; Lev. 22:32.) On the opposite side, we are told to avoid actions that will lower the public’s perception of Judaism and, by extension, the Jewish G-d. The Gemara in Yoma asks, “What are the circumstances that cause desecration of G-d’s name?” Rav answered, “in the case of someone like me, since I am an important public figure, if I take meat from a butcher and do not give him money immediately, people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay at all” (Talmud Yoma 86a:9).
So the basic idea is this: Do good, and even if you are good, make sure you look good as well, because as a Jew, you don’t just represent yourself–you represent our nation, and our G-d. So given this goal, what should we, as a people, do with our dirty laundry? The Gemara’s discussion on Chanukah candles provides an interesting perspective: “When a person is poor and must choose between purchasing oil to light a Shabbat lamp for his home or purchasing oil to light a Chanukah lamp, the Shabbat lamp for his home takes precedence. That is due to peace in his home. . . . .” (Talmud Shabbat 23b:3). Here, the Gemara finds that even though Chanukah is centrally focused on the mitzvah of publicity, that public celebration takes a backseat to ensuring that needs in the home are taken care of, and that the family has peace. In this seemingly mundane example, the Talmud highlights the tension between maintaining a public image and ensuring peace and security behind the scenes and places the highest priority squarely in the private relationship. When it comes to considerations of Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem, we should focus on making sure our communities are healthy, safe places from within, rather than emphasizing our public image to the exclusion — and detriment — of the challenges in our homes.
The Chanukah story celebrates our rejection of Greek culture — a society that worshipped perfection, both in the body and in the arts. What better way to be authentically Jewish than to become more comfortable with our imperfections? In addition, when we consider our idealized role as a Light Unto the Nations, we have to carefully study what that actually means. Does being an ohr require us to operate as PR specialists, showcasing the good and hiding the rest? Because in all honesty, hiding difficult communal issues under the rug takes no great skill or courage — in fact, pretty much everyone does it. Not to mention, as a well-known rabbi reportedly said, “there’s no more room under the rug” (attributed to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky).
Maybe being a light to the world is not about hiding anything that would mar our image, but rather, having the courage to address our problems head-on. Openly discussing issues such as abuse and get-refusal may feel deeply uncomfortable, but by being brave enough to shine a light on the dark places in our community, we can generate growth and change that will only inspire others. I was once at an interfaith conference on domestic abuse when a non-Jewish woman came up to me and shared how much she appreciated the Jewish community because we had so many resources to serve battered women. This may seem like a strange way to stand out, but when we actively work to solve our social problems, we encourage others to do the same.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the power of a small, faint light to chase away an extraordinary amount of darkness. So too, by shining even a tiny light on the darkest issues that we face, we can dispel enormous suffering. When we put our lights in the window, we don’t just have to display our perfect communal self, but the imperfect, growing, trying and caring reality. We may not win any PR awards, but we may just create real change.
And if there’s anything we learn from Chanukah, it’s that the smallest halo of light can burn and burn and burn, leaving a better and brighter world in its wake.
To help ORA bring light to the darkness, go here and be part of the change!