Two weeks ago I realized that the next meeting of the Introduction to Ethics course I am teaching this semester every Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. was going to take place on the first evening of Hanukka. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought to myself, if I were to bring a menorah with me and light the first candle of Hanukka together with my students, maybe adding doughnuts to the celebration to make it even sweeter? Maybe, I answered myself, but maybe not.
Maybe I would be taking illegitimate advantage of my role as professor to advance values that not all students necessarily share. And the fact that I wear a kippa made me even more anxious about the idea: wouldn’t such an act on my part inevitably be seen as yet another instance of religious coercion? Unable to reach a clear decision by myself, I decided to bring it up for discussion in class. A bit of a digression from the Greek ethicist with whom we were engaged, but not such a big one. After all, an Intro to Ethics should touch upon concepts such as fairness, equality, and justice – precisely those values relevant to the issue at hand.
The discussion in class was fascinating and took longer than I had planned. Some said that there was nothing wrong in lighting a menorah in the classroom, because Israel is a Jewish state; hence the presence of Jewish symbols and rituals in the public sphere is not a problem. Others argued that doing so would alienate non-Jewish students and make them feel uncomfortable.
Still others claimed that this would be a case of religious coercion, because secular students would be forced to participate in a religious ceremony. They said in their eyes it would be like the problematic custom of making all soldiers rise and stand silent when kiddush is recited at the beginning of every Friday evening dinner in military dining rooms.
Dilemmas like this bother all liberal countries which, on the one hand, seek to accommodate the majority will to express its culture or religion in the public sphere, while, on the other, do not want to send a message of alienation and exclusion to the minority groups.
What solutions are available to this dilemma? One is for the majority group to occupy the entire public sphere. The rationale would be that majority-based decisions are the standard rule in democracies.
Such rule is not unfair to the minority members, because they get an equal vote in political decisions. They can’t complain if it turns out that their interests get less support than those of the majority. This perspective, that democracy means that when the majority wins the losers get nothing, has often been the default position of many Israeli Jews.
Yet this approach is problematic. Consider the following example. Four friends decide to have coffee together every Friday morning. It appears that three of them fancy Café X, while the fourth prefers Café Y. If we take the majority-rule approach, then the group will hold a vote, the three will win – and the group will always go to Café X. An alternative arrangement would be for them to go to Café X three times a month and one time to Café Y. Isn’t it obvious that this is a more just arrangement? Rejection of the first solution opens the door to two more fair ones: Sharing the public sphere as decently as possible among all groups of society, like in the café example, or excluding all cultural/religious symbols from the public sphere, creating, as it were, a “naked” public sphere.
The idea of complete exclusion seems to me like the statement of the mother who lied in the famous story about Solomon’s wisdom: “It shall be neither mine nor yours.” Given that people have an authentic need to bring their culture to the public sphere, what kind of a solution is it that prevents all from doing so? This solution has often been the default in the American public sphere, which celebrates the separation of church and state.
Yet the best approach may very well be the sharing one. Here are the fundamental principles it embodies: First, there is nothing wrong in displaying Jewish symbols, such as a menorah, in Israeli universities and colleges, or in presenting Jewish practices such as lighting candles (or, of course, eating doughnuts).
Jews didn’t aspire for a Jewish state in order to then have to hide their Jewishness in their private sphere.
Second, being the majority group in the country, Jews will naturally dominate the public sphere. But dominance should not mean exclusivity. Minorities should also be given a share in the public sphere. A good example is the historic decision my university made last year to include some non-Jewish holidays in the academic calendar as days in which no classes are held. Thus, if a menorah is allowed, then a Christmas tree should also be allowed.
Third, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, if religious ceremonies are practiced in the public sphere, special caution should be taken not to violate the freedom from religion of the secular individual. Having one’s university display a menorah is one thing. Being forced to wear a kippa and participate in a rabbi-led Hanukka ceremony is another.
What does all this imply regarding the case at hand – lighting a menorah in my Intro to Ethics class? On the one hand, Jews are entitled to manifest their customs in the public sphere, which counts in favor. As most Israeli Jews, religious and non-religious, light candles on Hanukka, it would seem forced to describe the lighting of a hanukkia as a form of religious coercion.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a difference between positioning a menorah somewhere on the campus and holding a kind of private ceremony in which it is lit in a small classroom where the students are a captive audience. The right of the majority to express its symbols in the public sphere does not entail an automatic right to do so everywhere and at any time.
The bottom line? I gave up the idea of lighting the first candle of the holiday together with my students. But we didn’t give up the doughnuts which were kindly provided by the Union. And it was a good exercise in moral philosophy.
Daniel Statman is a member of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. Get more information about iEngage at iengage.org.il.
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