Of Chanukah, Grandfathers and the Real Meaning of the Light

My two grandfathers held one another in respectful, yet distant regard. My mother’s father, a Polish-born, Conservative rabbi, devoted his life to Jewish education and study. He had little use for popular entertainment, and, despite his keen intelligence, rarely appreciated the jokes the rest of us found so funny.

My paternal grandfather’s idea of a good time was playing practical jokes. One of his favorite stunts was when he hired a kid in the neighborhood to paint some small canvas, sign it “Eruoy Stun” and rave about the young talent to others, who, like the admirers of the Emperor’s new clothes, clamored for other works by the youth. Decades later, Papa still chortled when he recalled that “Eruoy Stun” was “You’re nuts” spelled backward.

Papa Rosenfeld also had little use for God. He turned his back on religion when, as a young boy, his father died, leaving his mother to raise him and his five siblings in poverty. A rabbi told my grandfather that his father’s passing was “God’s will,” which promptly gave Papa an ax to grind against organized Judaism for the rest of his life. As an adult, he became an active proponent of secular humanism, even becoming president of the Southern California chapter of the Secular Humanist Society.

Thinking about my very different, very beloved grandfathers reminds me of the eternal struggle embodied in Chanukah: the forces of secularism battling the uniquely powerful spirituality of Judaism. Papa Cohen wanted little to do with secular society. While this probably had more to do with his inherently serious personality than with the kind of palpable fear that many of today’s Orthodox Jews have toward secularism, he also feared the impact of secular influences on his children and grandchildren. He was right in many respects. Slowly, Jewish life mattered less and less to his descendants. Today, only one of his surviving grandchildren keeps a kosher home.

Despite their marked differences, I was drawn to and loved both my grandfathers deeply. In a way, the friction between their philosophies forced me to analyze just where I stood in the Jewish world. Like many other Jews who have become more ritually observant as adults, I still wonder: how can I live an authentically, spiritually rich Jewish life that’s balanced with the best that secular society has to offer?

Chanukah is all about the battle to preserve religious freedom amid oppressive, state-mandated idolatry. The Syrian-Greeks imposed ever harsher measures against the Jews, outlawing practices that were fundamental to our lives: the celebrations of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (the new moon) and even Bris Milah. The brave, absurdly outnumbered Maccabees, firm in their faith, answered this spiritual threat with a physical response, while praying to God to help them succeed.

We in America enjoy tremendous religious freedom that our ancestors could never have imagined. But unless we strike a healthy balance, our freedom contains the seeds of an insidious threat to our spiritual lives. We are bombarded with Hellenistic messages throughout the media and in society in general; we still cannot be too rich or too thin. Invitations to “Just Do It” shout louder than the quiet self-help books that encourage personal reflection, self-discipline and altruism.

This reality makes Chanukah intensely relevant to our lives today. Jews are becoming increasingly estranged from one another largely over religious issues: you’re wrong, I’m right. Or, maybe, you may be right, but you’ve got no right passing judgment on me. The right wing among Orthodox Jews shudders in fear that their children will be contaminated by our society’s narcissism and banality. But there is a risk in shutting our eyes from all secular society: our focus can become narrow and shallow in its own way. There is also a very real risk that our children will rebel from a stifling vision of life’s possibilities. After all, there’s more to American society than Oprah and Geraldo.

Neither of my grandfathers managed to blend their Judaism with life in a secular society. Each chose one and shunned the other. But when we think about Chanukah and what it can teach us about how to find this balance, we can look to Samson Raphael Hirsch for enough enlightenment to set thousands of chanukiahs aglow.

Hirsch lived about a century before my grandfathers. Born in Hamburg on June 20, 1808, he is known for his phenomenally rich and erudite commentaries on the Five Books of Moses and other works. During his lifetime, Hirsch was criticized for pursuing secular education. In fact, he enrolled at the University of Bonn, where he studied history, philosophy, experimental physics and classical languages. His writing is dotted with Latin, Greek, French and English phrases.

I have always admired Hirsch because he never considered the pursuit of secular knowledge as a compromise to Torah values. He wanted to restore the historic connection Jews had always had with secular knowledge, a practice that flourished during the golden ages of Babylonian and Spanish Jewry, but which was later forbidden by our host nations. Hirsch 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? The Jewish youth who knows from his historical studies [the contempt for human life shown by the ancient Egyptians], the social oppression and moral degeneration in Rome of old, the oppression and licentiousness of [ancient Greek society], understands and appreciates 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 involvement in academics also brought countless other Enlightenment-era 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 fictitious correspondence (based on Hirsch’s own experiences with university students) between a rabbi and a young intellectual searching for some proof of God’s existence.

The light of Chanukah recalls a miracle of dedication to our God and to our religious values. Chanukah means dedication, but its root word, chinuch, means education. When we light our chanukiahs in a window of our homes, we share our small, humble light with our neighbors. We need not choose between the light of Torah or the light of secularism. If rooted in both Torah and the best that society has to offer, we will truly become a light unto the nations.

Judy R. Gruen has written for the Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Baltimore Jewish Times and many other publications. She lives in Venice, CA