Hanukkah: To pretend or to be really religious?

For religious Jews, Judaism’s constant demand to follow Halacha (Jewish law) may give the impression that Judaism depends solely on the need to “observe.”

 LIGHTING THE ‘hanukkiah’ should be a transforming act.  (photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)
LIGHTING THE ‘hanukkiah’ should be a transforming act.
(photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

One of the great problems any religious person should struggle with is whether it is actually possible to be religious. What, after all, is the essence of genuine religiosity? This is no doubt the cognizance that one lives in the presence of God and feels and acts accordingly.

The concept that lies at the root of all religions is the awareness that it is extremely difficult to live up to the awe of the moment. Our ultimate concern should be to grasp – emotionally and intellectually – that we are the contemporaries of God. But for most of us, this is an impossible mission. How can man ever encounter the divine “otherness”?

How can one live in God’s presence and not be humble? Be part of the great miracle of existence and ignore it? To be religious is to live in a state of being spiritually uncomfortable. But we have become so insensitive that this almost turns the religious lives of millions, including our own, into a farce.

We may sincerely convince ourselves that we are religious, while in fact we are guilty of self-deception. For religious Jews, Judaism’s constant demand to follow Halacha (Jewish law) may give the impression that Judaism depends solely on the need to “observe.”

 Rabbi Levi Duchman lights the Hanukkah Menorah on November 28th, 2021 at Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE. (credit: Courtesy JEWISH UAE) Rabbi Levi Duchman lights the Hanukkah Menorah on November 28th, 2021 at Dubai Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE. (credit: Courtesy JEWISH UAE)

How often do religious Jews believe they are religious because they are observant?

In truth, Halacha is not to be observed but rather experienced as a way to contend with one’s lifelong existential awareness that we are living in the presence of God. Halacha is a response to our question of how to live with spiritual discomfort.

A remarkable feature of Halacha is that it often asks us to act as if we are deeply provoked by living in the presence of God, while in reality we are not.

IN A NOTABLE discussion between the great Mishnaic schools of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel (Shabbat 21b), the question is posed whether it is better to light all eight candles of the hanukkiah on the first day of Hanukkah or on the last day. Beit Shamai suggests that one should begin with lighting all eight, subtracting a candle every subsequent day until only one is lit on the eighth day. Beit Hillel’s opinion is that we should light only one candle on the first day and slowly build up to eight candles on the eighth day. The latter is the established Halacha; what is this dispute all about?

The disagreement between these two schools is rooted in the question of whether people should express their religious commitment through acts that honestly reflect where they stand at that hour, or through acts that express where they would like to be in the future. Is Judaism better served by making us act as if we are on a level of high spirituality, while in fact we are not, or does it prefer that we express our religious feelings reflecting our often middle-of-the-road religious condition?

Beit Shamai’s suggestion that one should light all eight candles on the first night is, for the most part, an honest expression of our feelings. We are more excited on the first day than we are on the last. For most of us, the notion of novelty is felt at the start, never at the end. Hence, eight lights are required on the first day. 

But such excitement comes with a price. It does not endure. It is therefore logical that on the second day only seven lights be lit and on the last day only one. It is Beit Shamai’s conviction that we should not put on a show and pretend that we are more than what we are.

Such an approach is thoroughly honest but lacks a dream and vision of what could be. Beit Hillel therefore believes that if we do not inspire human beings with a vision of their potential and give them a taste of what could be, they will not even strive to achieve higher goals. 

According to Beit Hillel, we should start with only one light on the first day, since this reflects the condition of our soul at the beginning of Hanukkah. We need to warm up and slowly strengthen our soul until it bursts with spiritual depth on the eighth day when we reach the fullness of the festival. 

The lighting of the hanukkiah should be a transforming act, and that can take place only when it is accompanied by an inner experience that touches the deepest dimensions of our souls, step by step. The last day should be the greatest. We should act “as if” – so that one day we may reach this spiritual level; we taste the future in the present.

IT IS BETWEEN these two positions that Judaism operates – a balancing act, like a tightrope walker. Most of the time, it requires a compromise. Sometimes Jewish law will opt for a realistic understanding of the here and now; other times it will choose the dream. It is a difficult position to be in, and it is not always clear why Halacha will decide a certain way in one instance and another way in others.

But it is the realistic understanding of “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too” that seems to move Judaism. Beit Shamai will sometimes have to agree that there is a need to go for the dream, and Beit Hillel will on occasion have to rule by the harsh facts on the ground. Judaism cannot survive by opting for only one of these ideals – this would be suicidal.

Most interesting is the fact that there is one opinion in the Talmud (Yevamot 14a) saying that Beit Shamai continued to follow its own view, even after the Halacha was decided in accordance with Beit Hillel. According to this opinion, it seems that Beit Shamai continued to light eight candles on the first day of Hanukkah, although everyone else followed the opinion of Beit Hillel (Shabbat 21b). 

This makes us wonder, for tradition tells us that Halacha will only be established in accordance with the rulings of Beit Shamai in the messianic era. There is, however, no source for this tradition in the Talmud. Could it mean that for exceptional souls it would be possible to follow the views of Beit Shamai even today?

No two souls are the same. It is this fact that makes religious life a far-from-easy task.

All Jews are confronted with this unusual question. But who among us realizes that? 

The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. He is the author of many books, including the bestseller Jewish Law as Rebellion. His thoughts are discussed on many media outlets, and he is also an international lecturer. Find his weekly essays at www.cardozoacademy.org/