December 13, 2018

Hanukkah, Talmud and the Science of Hope

The Talmud records yet another debate between House Hillel and House Shamai: How do we count the days of Hanukkah? Is it a countdown? Or a count up? Shamai says: Start with eight lights, and on each night eliminate one. Simple countdown. Like a timer. Hillel offers an opinion that’s more familiar. Start with one, and on each night add a light, counting up. The stopwatch model.

Like most apparently simple Talmudic debates, philosophical depth lurks beneath the surface. On this solstitial holiday, what does a little light represent? On this holiday that celebrates the victory of the physically weak over the physically powerful, what were the spiritual forces that enabled the Jews to emerge victorious?

One simple answer is hope. Hillel may not have been thinking only about the spiritual beauty in the home as light increases. He may have been thinking of what darkness represents, and what light can accomplish. As darkness grows, does it overpower the light? Or does the power of hope mean that no matter how widespread darkness becomes, we can always increase the amount of corresponding light?

Every Hanukkah, I think of former Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, who said, “[The] pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; … they do not complain of ignorance but increase wisdom.” Why does Rav Kook begin with the metaphor of darkness and light? Because fighting all forces, from evil to ignorance, requires one thing that light always represents: Hope. But how does hope work in our lives and in our world? 

The scientific study of optimal human functioning, Positive Psychology, provides a few critical pieces of information to help address these existential questions. In the early days of this empirical research, the concept of hope was used interchangeably with optimism and the two were generally found to impact all sorts of desirable outcomes, like satisfaction with relationships, success in the workplace and school, or even by lessening anxiety and depression. More recent research has investigated optimism and hope as distinct phenomena and, as it turns out, they are quite different. Optimism is the belief that that things generally will work out. Hope, on the other hand, is having a sense of the strategies and behaviors necessary to turn that optimism into reality. To turn darkness into light. 

Optimism and hope have tremendous strengths but they each have limitations, as well. In her book, “The Resilience Factor,” Karen Reivich writes about “Pollyanna optimism,” the belief that everything will always just work out. This often false sense of belief can cause us to fail to take action. Certain types of hope can have similar effects. For instance, Jeff Duncan-Andrade writes about “hokey hope,” the hope that things will get better even when the evidence suggests to us that they will not. This type of hope is no different than Pollyanna optimism. It, too, can lead to apathy.

“It is only by turning hope into action that darkness is overwhelmed by light.”

Instead of “hokey hope” and “Pollyanna optimism,” we need to shift our focus to a type of hope built on the part we as individuals can and need to play in realizing the outcomes we desire. A study of the predictive value of optimism and hope distills hope down to two distinct components. One is pathways, our belief in our ability to identify strategies for accomplishing a desired result and for facing obstacles along the way. The other is agency, the belief that we can initiate and sustain the motivation necessary to execute our strategies. Notice that while both components involve positive beliefs, it was agency (energy and effort) that served as the strongest predictor of positive outcomes. It is also worth noting that the researchers found optimism to be nonpredictive.

On each night of Hanukkah, we increase the light in our homes and synagogues. But to increase the metaphorical light — hope — it appears that our focus should be on moving from loose optimism to a hardened sense of personal agency and volition. It is only by turning hope into action that darkness is overwhelmed by light. That needs to be the big takeaway here. Positive expectations like optimism can be helpful, but they’re not going to get that next candle lit. To truly increase the light this holiday, we need to strategize and act.


Nick Holton teaches at Milken Community Schools. Rabbi David Saiger is the upper school rabbi at Milken Community Schools.