A menorah rises outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in preparation for a celebration service at sundown on the first night of Hanukkah in December 2018, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 at the temple. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press file)

A menorah rises outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in preparation for a celebration service at sundown on the first night of Hanukkah in December 2018, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 at the temple. (Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press file)

Viewpoints: Don’t let the light go out

Why, even with anti-Semitism on the rise, Jews — and others — need to light a candle for all we believe in.

By Danya Ruttenberg / For The Washington Post

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America.

Almost half of American Jews ages 18 to 29 report that they’ve experienced some form of anti-Semitism in the past five years.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic attacks in 2018 — 48 percent more than in 2016, and 99 percent more than in 2015 — “with a dramatic increase in physical assaults,” and found 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets shared on Twitter in a 12-month period. The FBI reports that 57 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes targeted Jews, and that those attacks have become more violent; attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose dress and appearance marks them as more visibly Jewish than many others of us, are particularly pronounced now. In just the past two weeks, we’ve seen a deadly shooting at a kosher market in New Jersey and the vandalism of a major Persian synagogue in Los Angeles.

These statistics and incidents stand in sharp relief as Hanukkah begins Sunday evening and continues through Dec. 30, the holiday most tied, in some ways, to our visible presence as Jews. And they open some questions about what this might mean for us now, on the cusp of 2020.

Part of the extra visibility around Hanukkah is culture-driven: As America drenches itself in Christmas carols and decks itself in red and green, those of us not participating may feel even more conspicuous or more invisible than usual. Of course, we share this feeling with all our non-Christian brethren: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and everyone else. But with Christmas falling in the middle of Hanukkah, some of us may go out of our way to represent with ugly dreidel sweaters or home decorations.

But there’s another kind of visibility, as well; one that roots itself in the space of religious commandment.

In commemoration of the Maccabees’ victory against an evil ruler who sought to destroy the Jewish people, and of their subsequent reclaiming and rededication of the Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud instituted the practice of kindling the Hanukkah lamp, which we now commonly refer to as the Hanukkah menorah. They said the lamp must be placed where it can be seen from the outside, to “publicize the miracle” of Jewish survival at a time when all could have been lost. This placing of the Hanukkah menorah somewhere visible — in an open doorway or in the window — is considered a crucial part of the mitzvah, the divine commandment, of lighting flames each night.

There is, however, an exception, the Talmud tells us: We refrain from publicizing the miracle in times of danger.

Safety is the most important thing. We’re not required to invite peril into our homes.

How do we know when a “time of danger” is upon us? Is the rise in hate crimes enough? How many Soros conspiracy theories are enough? How many times will Jews need to be attacked on the streets of Brooklyn, or gunned down in synagogue, for it to be considered a perilous time? Is it enough that a viral video recently circulated of Pastor Rick Wiles saying, “That’s the way the Jews work. They are deceivers. They plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda. This impeach Trump movement is a Jew Coup!”? This is, of course, nothing short of incitement.

A full 25 percent of respondents to a recent American Jewish Committee poll say that they avoid certain places, events or situations because of fear of being attacked for being Jews, and 31 percent said they avoided “wearing or displaying things” that would identify them as Jewish. They are trying not to publicize, to proclaim, to make themselves a target.

Jews who are scared have a right to be. The harm we have suffered these past few years is real. The danger to us today and tomorrow is real.

And yet. Maybe we still need all the light we can get.

Traditional commentators are fairly clear: We should understand “times of danger” to refer to times when non-Jews running the countries in which we live have outlawed the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah; when the practice of Judaism is illegal; or worse. I think of the indelible image of the menorah in the window with the Nazi flag flying across the street; the photo was taken in Kiel, Germany, in 1932, just before the elections that would bring Hitler to power.

When we can, when we are allowed to, we need to show up and shine bright. As the writer Bear Bergman put it, “We should, in sorrow and in resistance, increase the light. When the heart is dark, when the mood is dark, all we want is a little sanctified light. We want it to sputter and catch, and lift our hearts up as it does.”

Are American Jews able to bring such light? Even now? Even in our fear, our grief, our legitimate concerns? Might we be able to put our lamps, both literal and proverbial, out where everyone can see them, to offer out the light we have and to receive the radiance that others might be able to offer us?

Certainly, doing so makes us vulnerable. But it is also a clarion call: We are here. And it is an invitation to others to find us, and to stand with and for us. To let everyone know that they are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

As the 19th- and 20th-century Kabbalist Rav Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, “Everyone must know that within them burns a candle; and that no one’s candle is identical with the candle of another, and that there is no human being without a candle. One is obligated to work hard to reveal the light of one’s candle in the public realm for the benefit of the many. One needs to ignite one’s candle and make of it a great torch to enlighten the whole world.”

When we blaze brightly and bravely in the world, we publicize the miracle that has happened and fight to bring one yet to come; we say that those who seek to destroy us will ultimately be defeated. We show that we can stand together against hate with everyone feeling afraid now. We help warm a world when it might be feeling cold.

We must all shine out, together, big and bright.

Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi, is the author of “Surprised by God,” “Nurture the Wow” and other books.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Wednesday, April 8

A sketchy look at the day in the coronavirus outbreak (and politics).… Continue reading

Editorial: Trump must reopen Obamacare enrollment for jobless

About 3.5 million are without coverage following layoffs; ACA enrollment must be reopened for them.

Commentary: At home with partner? Older couples have it down

If you’re adjusting to stay-at-home orders, consider how your older peers have made it work.

Saunders: Why are Post, Times boycotting briefing room?

Suddenly, the White House is as dangerous to reporters as a natural disaster or war-torn nation.

Commentary: Covid-19 is anything but an ‘equalizer’

Pandemics, like the 1918 influenza, have higher death rates among impoverished communities.

Herald Homework: Medicare for All would save money

I am here to argue in favor of Medicare for All, which… Continue reading

Put emphasis on preventing virus spread at hospitals

Italy has a good medical system. The overwhelming catastrophe unfolding in Italy’s… Continue reading

It’s time we pulled together as fellow Americans

Can you imagine a world where it only mattered what was true,… Continue reading

Editorial cartoons for Tuesday, April 7

A sketchy look at the day in the coronavirus outbreak (and politics).… Continue reading

Most Read