Thinking Hanukkah: Light in a Time of Darkness, Hope in a Time of Despair

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Dear Friends,

In 1970, just as Hanukkah began, the Soviet Union condemned to death several Jews who had tried to highjack a plane to protest and to leave the oppressive behavior of the USSR toward the Jewish community.

A group of us in Washington DC — "Jews for Urban Justice" — decided to protest at the Soviet Embassy. We lit Hanukkah candles at the Soviet embassy, and read from the First Book of Maccabees some especially appropriate passages.

The death sentences were revoked, and ultimately Soviet Jews becamne free either to leave or to create a vital Jewish community.

I think the time has come again, this Hanukkah, to address the dangers of over-using overwhelming power — the "danger" that God often sides with "the few against the many, the weak against the powerful," as our prayers for this festival say.

There are two plans I know for addressing Hanukkah this year in the light of our own crises of power. At The Shalom Center, we think both are important for you to know about, and perhaps to draw on in yoiur own way.

In Philadelphia, Congregation Mishkan Shalom will address the danger of a US-Iraqi war.

And Steve Feuerstein of Chicago has proposed focusing on the continuing disaster of the Israeli-Palestinian war.

After including their plans, I willl retell a little of that history from 1970.

Shalom, Arthur.

In Philadelphia, Rabbi Yael Levy of Mishkan Shalom writes:

Ever since President Bush made clear his intent to launch a preemptive war against Iraq, religious leaders throughout our country and the world have spoken out against the idea. This past Yom Kippur, I called on the members of my congregation, Mishkan Shalom, to oppose this war.

Many of you [from various faith-traditions] have also spoken out against the war. I hope we can join together and declare our oppostion.

We invite you to join us for a Chanukah Dedication to Peace candlelighting ceremony in front of the Liberty Bell at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7. At the Liberty Bell, we will invite someone from each faith community to light a Chanukah candle and make a short statement about how their faith leads them to oppose this war.

After the ceremony, we will walk together to the Friends Meeting House at Fourth & Arch Streets and share food, music and talk about how we might work together to prevent this war. The event is still in the planning stages. We welcome your input.

We chose December 7 because on that evening Chanukah comes to an end. Each of the eight nights before, we light candles on a menorah to remember a miracle that happened when the Temple was rededicated. Although there was only enough oil for one day — it lasted for eight.

Today, some people think that the scarcity of oil may play a part in our country's war plans. We reject this as a reason for war. Just as there was enough oil to rededicate the Temple, so too is there sufficient oil and other resources to provide for all — if we can learn to make peace with each other.

The word "Chanukah" means "rededication." We are hopeful that through this event, we can rededicate ourselves to work together to prevent this war and to work for peace.

In the special Prophetic reading for the Shabbat that comes in the midst of Chanukah there is this passage: "Not by might, not by power but through the spirit of justice and compassion shall our world be transformed." (Zechariah 4:6)

Steve Feuerstein of Chicago writes:

Don't Let the Lights Go Out: Peace Chanukah -

A Call for Peace Chanukah gatherings around the world

The Hebrew word Chanukah means "dedication." Tragically, though, as we prepare to celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah this year, the hope of peace in the Middle East to which so many of us have dedicated so much time and energy seems more remote than ever.

The abject failure of the Oslo peace process has left an echoing vacuum — and ushered in a period of terrifying violence and devastation.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an entire society collapses under the deadly weight of Israel's military occupation. In Israel, Palestinian factions seeking to undermine the Palestinian Authority shock the world repeatedly with horrific suicide bombings.

And most recently, in Israel and the United States there is growing talk of "transfer," a euphemism for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the occupied territories — and even, in some versions, from inside Israel's pre-1967 borders.

As supporters of peace with justice in the Middle East, how can we rededicate ourselves to our vision of peace? How can we work to make it a reality?

Peace Chanukah

There is no quick and easy answer. It is extremely important, however, that we keep hope alive and that we come together to raise our voices for a just peace that will lead to real and lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians. We also must raise our voices to oppose the Bush Administration's drive for war against the people of Iraq.

We call on Jewish communities around the world to gather together during Chanukah this year to light candles for security, for peace, for justice.

Rather than — or in addition to — lighting your menorahs in your home, by yourselves, come together by the dozens, scores or hundreds!

Create a powerful moment in which our yearning for a resolution to this terrible conflict is manifested in a way that cannot be ignored. Invite the media to attend and report on a community menorah lighting ceremony for a just peace in your city or town.

Each community should decide how best and when to hold their Peace Chanukah gatherings. In the United States, the first night of Chanukah falls the day after Thanksgiving and on the Sabbath (as does the last night).

For these reasons, we have decided to call for events on the third night of Chanukah: Sunday, December 3. This will offer the greatest opportunity for observant Jews, as well as families with children, to join in the event. And so we offer text below to correspond to the three candles of that night. You may choose a different night. You may decide to change the text we offer.

The most important thing is to gather together as many Jews committed to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and opposed to a U.S.-led war against Iraq, to light menorahs together, to create a blaze of light for peace.

We also encourage you to invite Palestinian, Arab and other allies to join you in Peace Chanukah. What better way to express hope for the future than to share our holidays, our celebrations, our deepest concerns, with those who others try to brand as our "enemies"?

Time is short; the emphasis from now till the end of November should be on organizing your local activities. We would, however, like to know about your events. If this idea catches on (quickly!), we might just have the largest worldwide Chanukah celebration in history — and that is something Israelis, Palestinians and others desperate for peace will want and need to hear.

So tell us of your plans by writing to In addition, we will soon (by Nov 1) have the Peace Chanukah website up and running at, so please be sure to visit there.

For a just peace,

Steven Feuerstein, Refuser Solidarity Network; Not In My Name (NIMN).
Chicago, USA

1. Light a candle for real security.

Our hunger for peace is inextricably bound up with the universal human need for security. Israelis long for relief from the threat of suicide attacks, which turn every bus or street corner into a potential minefield.

Palestinians endure mass arrests, assassinations, tank and missile attacks, and a stifling "curfew" that has left entire communities unable to work, study, obtain medical care, or walk the streets of their towns for more than 100 days.

The depth of suffering on both sides offers a stark reminder that, far from increasing security, military action only destroys the safety of individuals, families, and communities. Generals and politicians lift the false banner of "national security." Real human security, however, depends not on military force, but on the strength of civil society; the integrity of education, health, and social services; and the possibility of normal community life.

2. Light a candle for direct action.

The entire spectrum of governmental agreements and initiatives have failed to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. Where governments have foundered, however, nonviolent direct action is lighting a beacon of hope.

In Nablus, Ramallah, and elsewhere, Palestinians are defying the curfew by opening schools and harvesting their olives braving gunfire and worse from Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Israelis as well as internationals from Europe and North America are serving as a nonviolent protection force for such efforts, and directly helping with the harvest. From high school seniors to seasoned reservists, Israelis are going to jail rather than perform military service that sustains the occupation.

Today, these initiatives are small. Yet history teaches us that such seeds may grow until even the most powerful governments are forced to bow to the will of the people for peace.

3. Light a candle for a peaceful future.

In these frightening times, it takes courage to rededicate ourselves every day to the vision of a peaceful future for the Middle East. A complete end to Israel's military occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is the single most important step in the direction of peace.

Every possibility of negotiation and peaceful coexistence depends on this beginning. It is not military strength but the demilitarization of economic, social and cultural life for Israelis and Palestinians alike that will open the door to a peaceful future.

In the United States and around the world, a host of initiatives are underway in support of this goal. These range from education and dialogue to efforts to lift up the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, to corporate and legislative campaigns targeting U.S. support for Israel's occupation. New coalitions are forming across ethnic and religious lines.

What other "candles" can light the way to peace? Every step we take is right as long as it is a step in the right direction. A well-known Jewish folk tale recounts the story of two people, each lost in a forest. When they meet and ask for directions out of the woods, they agree on this:

"The way I came from is not the way. The way you came from is not, either. So let us join together, share our search lights, and seek the way out together."

Arthur Waskow again:

I still have the copy of the New English Bible that we used at the Soviet Embassy in 1970, with the passages marked that we read aloud. [I Maccabees is not in the Hebrew scriptures; this anti-Hellenistic book was, ironically, kept alive as a sacred book, in Greek, by Hellenized Jews and then by Christians.])

The passages we read were I Macc 1: 41-64; 2: 15-48; 3:55-60; 4: 8-11; 4: 36-59. They included the description of how — just as the Torah commands — the Maccabees exempted from fighting in the war those who had newly built their homes, newly married, or were faint-hearted or iopen-hearted — afraid to die or afraid to kill.

These we included to affirm our support for young men who were resisting the US draft and the Vietnam War. We wanted to make sure our protest was understood as aimed not only against Soviet arrogance and oppression, but also against US arrogance and oppression.

It was illegal to protest within 500 feet of the embassy. But no police expected us, so we ended by actually sticking our candles on the fence just outside the Soviet Embassy.

On the eighth night, we gathered again. Thios time the police were ready. All week , despite the law, they had ignored "Establishment" Jewish groups that gathered close to the Embassy. But the Soviets were infuriated, and were threatening reprisals against the US embassy in Moscow. A sacrifical offering was necessary. Who better than progressive and radical Jews, with some anti-militarist, anti-imperialist allies?

So we gathered, some prepared to leave if the police threatened arrest. (Some of us were law students, fearful of being disbarred.)

We began to light our candles. The cops ordered us to disperse. Most of us began to, as agreed. But the cops yelled, "Where are you going? You're under arrest!" and took us — twelve men and one woman, like Jacob's children — the "children of Israel — to jail.

We sang a song from the Psalms by David Shneyer, who was among those arrested: "Chesed u'mishpat ashira, L'cha Adonai azamaira: l'Daveed mizmor, l'daveed mizmor. Of love & justice I will sing; To You, Adonai, I'll sing praises ..."

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

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