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Of Chanukah, Grandfathers, and the Real Meaning of the Light


My two Papas held one another in respectful, yet distant regard. Papa Cohen (my mother’s father) escaped from the Polish army during WWI and eventually came to America, becoming a rabbi in the Conservative movement. He was altogether a serious man, with keen intelligence, yet rarely appreciated the jokes that the rest of us found so funny. Perhaps he found it hard to allow himself a feeling of lightheartedness, because he began to see how American secular culture was eroding a sense of Jewish values in his children and grandchildren.

  But Papa Rosenfeld, my father’s father, was an atheist jokester, the polar opposite of Papa Cohen. He stealthily placed antacid tablets on tables at elegant dinner parties, waiting for the hostess’s shocked response. Once he once hired a neighborhood kid to slop some paint on a canvas, sign it “Eruoy Stun,” and rave about the “art” to friends who clamored for other works by the young genius. Decades later, Papa still roared with laughter when he recalled that “Eruoy Stun” was “You’re nuts” spelled backward.
My joking Papa had little use for God. He turned his back on religion at the tender age of 7, after a rabbi told him that his father’s early death was God’s will. “If that’s God’s will,” Papa told me, “I didn’t want anything to do with it.” As an adult he channeled this anger at God to become a national leader of the Secular Humanist Society.
Despite their opposite worldviews and natures, I loved both my grandfathers very much. Their warring philosophies forced me to analyze where I stood in the Jewish world, and at this time of year, it also reminds me of the eternal struggle embodied in Chanukah: how to balance the forces of secularism with the powerful spirituality of Judaism.
The meaning of Chanukah too often gets lost as a nice holiday that just happens to land near Christmas, with our menorah lights flickering and a mythical sounding story about a miracle involving a tiny cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. In reality, Chanukah’s origin was a battle to preserve religious freedom amid oppressive, state-mandated idolatry. The Syrian-Greeks didn’t try to kill us outright, but through oppressive laws that outlawed our most sacred practices: observances of the Sabbath, Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) and Bris Milah (ritual circumcision). The brave, absurdly outnumbered Jewish Maccabees answered a spiritual threat with a physical response, taking time out on the battlefield to pray for God’s assistance. 
Our ancestors could never have imagined the religious freedom we have today in America. But that same freedom also lures us into forgetting about our spiritual heritage. Society bombards us with messages the ancient Greeks would have heartily endorsed: We still cannot be too rich, too thin or look young enough. We have become a society that champions feeling good about yourself, rather than the old-fashioned standard-bearers of self-discipline and hard work—which ultimately lead to a deeper sense of self.
Orthodox Jews tend to avoid a lot of secular media, because while we know that its narcissistic and banal messages can corrode core spiritual values. But how far do we go in shutting out secular society? The risk is that our focus can become parochial and shallow in its own way. And too many Orthodox kids rebel from a stifling vision of life’s possibilities. 
Neither of my Papas could merge Judaism with secular life; each chose one over the other. A brilliant blueprint for how we can strike the balance was penned by Samson Raphael Hirsch, born in Germany in 1808 and best known for his rich and erudite commentaries on the Torah. During his lifetime, Hirsch was criticized for his own studies of history, philosophy, experimental physics and classical languages at the University of Bonn. (This may explain why his commentaries are dotted with Latin, Greek, French and English phrases.)
But Hirsch realized that Jews had always benefited from secular knowledge, and insisted that attaining secular knowledge enhanced one’s appreciation for Torah:
“How can we understand the sublime word pictures of world history, painted by the prophets, without an adequate knowledge of contemporary secular history?,” he asked.  Any Jewish student who learned about the oppression and moral degeneration of the ancient Egyptians and Romans “would appreciate a thousand times better the sublime and divine character of the Sinaitic law. . . The Talmud reproaches those who fail to undertake it with the words of Isaiah (5:12) ‘And the doing of God they do not contemplate and the work of His hands they do not see.’”
Hirsch’s intellectual breadth also brought other Jews who were filled with doubts about the value and veracity of the Torah, back to tradition.  His slim volume, “The Nineteen Letters,” is a fictional correspondence between a rabbi and a young intellectual searching for some proof of God’s existence, and is based on Hirsch’s own exchanges with university students. 
Chanukah means “dedication,” but its root word, chinuch, means “education.”  When we light our menorahs in a window of our homes, we share our small, humble light with our neighbors. But we don’t need to choose between the light of Torah or the light of secularism. If we put Jewish values and Torah study first, and then take the best that society has to offer while dismissing the inane and the damaging, we can still fulfill our charge to be a light unto the nations.   

Judy GruenJudy Gruen has been a writer and editor for more years than she cares to confess. With a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University, she is the author of three humor books and co-author of a book on MBA admissions. Her features and essays have appeared in major media outlets worldwide and in ten anthologies, and she is is a regular contributor to Aish.com.

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