A group of people at a Hillel gathering, 1970. Back row, left to right: unidentified, Richard Bass, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Bob Golden, unidentified, unidentified. Front row, from left: unidentified, unidentified, unidentified, Hildy Groberman. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11673)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected]m.ca or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
Hillel House building at the University of British Columbia. (photo from Hillel BC)
The University of British Columbia Geography Students Association (GSA) recently canceled a gala that was to take place in rental space owned by UBC’s Hillel chapter, due to pressure from some of the faculty in the department of geography.
The faculty members said they insisted on boycotting the event because of what they called the “controversial” and “political” nature of Hillel, according to numerous reports. The faculty members had not been publicly identified as of press time and could, therefore, not be located to clarify their position.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has accused them of boycotting the GSA gala based on the perception that Hillel supports the state of Israel, which CIJA is calling discriminatory.
“Boycotting Jews or a Jewish organization simply because you object to the state of Israel’s policies is classic antisemitism,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s director for the Pacific region.
“It is hard to believe that there is such blatant antisemitism on a Canadian university campus in 2018. There should be zero tolerance for any expressions of discrimination, racism and antisemitism on campus and anywhere else in Canada.”
Samuel Heller, the assistant executive director of Hillel BC, told the CJN that, “The actions of these faculty members have resulted in a de facto boycott of the Jewish student centre on campus. To boycott Jews based on one’s political views about Israel is discriminatory and antisemitic. Their actions have led to the resignation of the lone Jewish student on the executive of the GSA, as he felt marginalized and discriminated against because of his Jewishness.”
Addressing the claim that Hillel is a controversial and political space, Heller said, “Hillel doesn’t have any politics. What these faculty members really object to is Hillel’s support of Israel’s existence. We are a Jewish organization and Israel is a part of Jewish identity.… To demand that Jews disavow parts of our identity to placate faculty members is wrong and discriminatory.”
But not everyone accepts Heller’s characterization of Hillel as “having no politics.” The Progressive Jewish Alliance at UBC (PJA) released a statement on Facebook on March 16, saying: “While we recognize the right of the GSA to move the gala based on political considerations, we urge the GSA to recognize that Hillel is the physical Jewish space on campus, alongside having a political position. While we wait for a statement from the GSA, we would like to point out that the ramifications of their decision are alienating Jewish students on campus. Likewise, we encourage Hillel to consider how their political positions, such as an opposition to all boycotts of Israel, can alienate other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and students.”
The PJA is referring to Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which state that Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against the state of Israel.
In 2012, concerns about Hillel’s refusal to partner with Jewish organizations that support the BDS movement led to the formation of Open Hillel, an organization that agitates for Hillel to end the Standards of Partnership.
Numerous controversies have broken out over Hillel boycotting groups or individuals in recent years. In one example, in March 2017, B’nai Keshet, a queer Jewish group at Ohio State University, co-sponsored a Purim fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees in the Columbus area. Because Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that supports BDS, was one of the sponsoring groups, OSU Hillel cut ties with B’nai Keshet, due to pressure from Hillel International, prompting students on numerous American campuses to hold “solidarity Shabbats” with the LGBTQ group. In June, a letter calling for the end of the standards was signed by more than 100 rabbis and submitted to Hillel.
The UBC Progressive Jewish Alliance hopes that the controversy will not only provoke change in the GSA, but in Hillel, as well.
“We hope that both organizations take this opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue around the complexity of politics and place,” it concluded in a statement.
Philip Steenkamp, the vice-president of external relations at UBC, told the CJN that the university is “aware of concerns that have been expressed by CIJA” and “are looking into this matter and will follow due process to ensure it is appropriately addressed.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter. This article was originally published by the CJN.
Rachel Sumekh is one of five speakers who will participate in FEDtalks Sept. 13. (photo from Rachel Sumekh)
University students with meal plans often end a semester or term with a surplus on their cafeteria swipe card. Whether because they skip a few breakfasts, go on vacation or eat in a restaurant the occasional night, some of the meals they pay for go unpurchased. In most instances, students are not reimbursed for uneaten meals.
When Rachel Sumekh was studying history at the University of California Los Angeles in 2010, she and some friends went to the cafeteria, stocked up on to-go food using the amounts remaining on their swipe cards and handed it out to hungry people on the streets of the city.
The dining provider didn’t like the gesture of goodwill, as it created an unanticipated run on to-go food. Sumekh talked it out with the administrators and created the pilot project for Swipe Out Hunger, an initiative that is now on 32 American college campuses, helping feed hungry people across the country. Sumekh will talk about the project here on Sept.13 at FEDtalks, the opening event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign.
The original idea, she admits, came from her friend Bryan Pezeshki, but he was busy continuing his studies – he’s now a doctor – and so Sumekh and a few friends carried it on as a side gig, meeting on Sundays and creating Swipe Out Hunger. In 2013, they decided to see what would happen if a full-time staff person were devoted to the project and Sumekh took on the job.
In such a venture, the humanitarian impulses of dining providers compete with their bottom line – unused amounts on meal cards means lower operating costs for them. So, in getting suppliers on board, Swipe Out Hunger organizers emphasize doing the right thing, while also implying there might be bad publicity if campus media discover food providers’ reluctance to participate in a program that fights hunger. Nonetheless, it is a challenge. Sumekh said students from about 300 different campuses have approached Swipe Out Hunger to start their own chapters, yet only about 10% of those have been successfully launched.
“So, it comes down to how difficult it is for universities to actually agree to implement this,” she said.
Originally focused on feeding hungry people in the communities around campus, Swipe Out Hunger has transitioned to focus mostly on addressing the hunger of students on campus.
Ironically, the problem of student hunger is exacerbated by an increasing accessibility of post-secondary education, she said. Financial aid and need-based scholarships are making it easier for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to attend college. But, once there, they confront the realities of student life without money.
Educational institutions are giving financial aid, even full tuition in some cases, Sumekh said, but the students still have no money. “So who’s going to pay for their housing or their meals or their books or their transportation and all the other stuff?” She estimates that 75% of those benefitting from Swipe Out Hunger now are college students.
Sumekh says hunger leads to increased absenteeism, poor grades and dropping out. She pointed to a Canadian study that suggests 39% of Canadian college students cannot afford balanced meals and fear not having enough food at all. Almost half of the more than 4,000 students who participated in the study said they chose books, tuition and rent over healthy meals, one-quarter said the lack of good food affected their physical health and one in five said their mental health was affected. While there are no Swipe Out Hunger chapters in Canada yet, a similar program, Meal Exchange, exists here.
Universities are slowly coming to the awareness that their students’ well-being depends on healthy, sufficient diets, among all the other factors, Sumekh said. This is evidenced by the shift her organization has seen in the type of people who are approaching Swipe Out Hunger.
“Previously, 100% of the interest in our program was from students,” she said. “Now, over 50% of our interest is coming directly from administrators.… Universities are finally recognizing that they have students on their own campus who are going hungry and they have to do something about it.”
There has been a stigma around colleges acknowledging hunger among their students, she added, but this is diminishing in the face of recognition of the need.
Swipe Out Hunger also had a recent advocacy triumph. In June, thanks to pressure from Sumekh’s organization, the California state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown approved $7.5 million in funding to encourage colleges throughout the state to adopt a Swipe Out Hunger program, establish food pantries and hire staff to help students access nutritious food. So far, 1.3 million meals have been shared – and that number is likely to grow, as Swipe Out Hunger catches on in California and nationwide. Despite this success, Sumekh hopes her organization goes out of business.
“If there’s anything we believe, it’s that the old model of charity doesn’t work,” she said. “We don’t want to exist 20 years from now.”
Swipe Out Hunger is aiming for a systemic shift, where universities take it upon themselves to ensure that students’ needs are met, a universalization of an ad hoc program now on some campuses in which meals are provided to students in need.
While Swipe Out Hunger isn’t aimed specifically at Jewish students or any other cultural demographic, Sumekh credits both her Jewishness and assistance from the Jewish community for inspiring the initiative. The daughter of refugees from post-revolution Iran, Sumekh is excited to be sharing the stage at FEDtalks with Eric Fingerhut, chief executive officer of Hillel International, because she was involved with UCLA Hillel and got lots of support from the campus group when she was starting Swipe Out Hunger.
“When I was getting the program off the ground, I would go to Hillel and they would say, Rachel, whatever you need, tell us and we’ll make it happen,” she said. “It was an amazing way to see the Jewish community say, let’s just support this young Jew, even though what they’re doing isn’t just for Israel or just for Jewish people. If they’re doing something that’s living out our values, we should want to support that.”
Eric Fingerhut, chief executive officer of Hillel International, will be part of FEDtalks on Sept. 13. (photo from Hillel International)
There are internal and external challenges facing the Jewish community, said Eric Fingerhut, and their solutions will come from the young people who are currently on college campuses.
The former U.S. congressman has served since 2013 as chief executive officer of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and is one of five speakers at FEDtalks, the opening of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign, which takes place at the Chan Centre next week.
“The one place that the future of the Jewish community actually comes together in a relatively concentrated way for a relatively concentrated period of time is the college campus,” Fingerhut said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Independent. “The question that I want to address with the audience is, how can we use the opportunity of the college years to build a unified Jewish community – not a uniform Jewish community, but a unified Jewish community – that will enable the next generation to make their contribution to the long-term growth of Jewish life, Jewish learning and Israel?”
Finding unity among Jews, particularly around issues of religious and political expression, and in the face of anti-Israel activism that is prevalent on college campuses, is not easy, he acknowledged. Occasional reports emerge claiming that Jewish students are disengaging from the contentious debate around Israel and Palestine, but Fingerhut said confronting these issues is a matter of personal choice and disposition.
“There is no question that, on far too many campuses, there have been contentious debates – and sometimes worse than debates, sometimes really disturbing incidents involving anti-Israel and even antisemitic behaviour,” he said. “For some students, being engaged directly, encountering that kind of behaviour, is something that they feel comfortable doing, that they are inspired to do. But, for others, those kinds of situations are less comfortable and it’s not what they came to college to do. They have many other things on their plate. We don’t judge the level of commitment that a Jewish student has to the Jewish community and Israel by whether or not they show up at a counter-protest or a meeting about BDS. We encourage students to do that, but there are many, many ways for Jewish students to engage with Israel.”
Hillel, he noted, is the biggest recruiter for Birthright, Masa and other Israel experience programs. Hillel also coordinates Jewish Agency shlichim (emissaries) on 75 campuses, young Israelis who engage face-to-face with Jewish and non-Jewish students on North American campuses.
“We provide many, many ways to engage with Israel so that students can build a relationship with Israel, but not necessarily have to do that through being involved in the middle of some of these very ugly protests,” said Fingerhut.
Almost immediately after becoming CEO, Fingerhut was confronted with the development of the Open Hillel movement, a group that rejects Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, a policy that outlines the sort of groups with which Hillel will partner. Fingerhut took a firm line and he maintains it.
“Every student, regardless of their opinions or the issues they want to discuss, is welcome,” he said. “Every conversation is welcome. But, as an organization, we are Zionists. We are seeking to support Israel as our Jewish, democratic state. So, while that would certainly involve debate and discussion … it also means that we will not work with organizations whose mission is to hurt the state of Israel, who are trying to undermine the state of Israel. Certainly, that describes organizations that promote BDS.… We’re not going to work with them and we’re not going to host speakers whose career and work have been about trying to undermine Israel and its role as the sovereign representative of the Jewish people. Those are our guidelines and there are some who would want us to change those and we respect them. They have a right to argue for change, to make their case for change. They are welcome as individuals at Hillel, as everybody else [is], even though they disagree with our policies. But we’re not going to change our policies.”
Geopolitics is not the only potentially divisive area for Hillel. Religion is another factor. Building a pluralistic campus community is hard work, he said.
“Hillel is totally committed to Jewish pluralism,” he said. “Hillel’s a place where you’ll see a Friday night service in one room where men and women are praying separately on either side of a mechitzah, the divider. You’ll see another room where men and women are praying together and a woman is leading the service wearing a tallit. You’ll see in another room where maybe a song leader with a guitar is singing and leading music in a different style. You’ll see another room where people are meditating or discussing the issues of the day because prayer isn’t their thing. There may even be a room where people are discussing why they’re not in any of the other rooms.… And then we all come together and we have dinner and we make Kiddush and we celebrate together as a community.”
Respecting this diversity places a unique responsibility on Hillel, he said, and it portends a better future.
“It’s a core value of ours,” he said. “And we believe that, if a student learns to live in a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community, where we’re not trying to change each other but we treat each other with love and respect, that will hopefully influence how they lead communities as adults when they graduate and go out into the world.”
As the leader of an organization that is almost a century old, one of the things Fingerhut confronts is an outdated perception of what Hillel is.
“Perhaps the number one question I still get asked from folks who remember Hillel from their college days is, how many people go to Hillel?” he said. “That’s just not a question we ask anymore … because our job is to inspire Jewish life on a college campus, and we do that wherever students are. Certainly, some of the activities happen inside a building that is called Hillel. But Hillel is inspiring Jewish life and Jewish activity all across campus, engaging students where they are.”
For example, he said, students sometimes tell him they don’t go to Hillel, but prefer to spend Shabbat with friends in their apartment or dorm.
“And I smile because I know that that was a Hillel-sponsored program,” he said. “We knew that, if the only Shabbos dinner we offered on campus was coming to Hillel, that will attract a certain number of people. But some are going to say, that’s not the way I want to spend Friday nights, going to a large group dinner. So, we knew that, by getting one popular student in a dorm to invite their friends to a smaller group dinner in an apartment building or in a dorm, that would attract additional students.”
As the news doesn’t generally focus on the positive, what doesn’t make headlines are the numbers of Jewish students engaged in a vast range of activities and programs, Fingerhut said.
“People tend to hear the negative, the problems, the anti-Israel activities, the antisemitism,” he said. “They tend not to see the very vibrant Jewish life that exists on so many campuses.”
On May 8, Canadian Hillels in partnership with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) released Going Somewhere? The Canadian Guide to Jewish Campus Life. Inspired by Maclean’s annual university guide, Going Somewhere? Provides students with information about Jewish life on campuses across Canada, as well as tips on how Jewish students can make the most of their first-year experience.
Going Somewhere? includes campus-by-campus details on everything from Jewish student population numbers, access to kosher food, Jewish studies programs, academic exchanges with Israeli schools and popular housing locations for Jewish students, as well as Jewish social opportunities, such as holiday parties hosted by Hillel. Going Somewhere? also provides information about Jewish and pro-Israel campus advocacy opportunities, and paid internships offered by Hillel.
“We are proud to publish the first coast-to-coast Canadian guide to Jewish life on campus,” said Marc Newburgh, chief executive officer of Hillel Ontario, in a statement. “For Jewish students, the university experience provides a unique opportunity to connect with their community, shape their Jewish identity for the long-term and develop skills by engaging in Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy. Our hope is that Going Somewhere? will prove a valuable resource for students and their families.”
Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president of university and local partner services at CIJA, added, “CIJA is pleased to have contributed to Going Somewhere?… As the only Jewish student organization with staff on the ground at schools across the country, Hillel offers an unparalleled window into everything Jewish on campus. The practical advice and campus-by-campus details in Going Somewhere? make for required reading for every Jewish student as they consider their options for the fall.”
A group of people at Hillel, 1970. Back row, left to right: unidentified, Richard Bass, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Bob Golden, unidentified, unidentified. Front row, left to right: unidentified, unidentified, unidentified, Hildy Groberman. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11673)
If you know someone in this photo, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
Hillel House, University of British Columbia, circa 1990. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11126)
If you know someone in these photos, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
At Hillel, 1987. (photo from JWB fonds, JMABC L.11123)
If you know someone in this photo, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected] or 604-257-5199. To find out who has been identified in the photos, visit jewishmuseum.ca/blog.
From left to right, Julius Maslovat, Carmel Tanaka, MP Murray Rankin and MLA Rob Fleming at the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society’s annual Kristallnacht Commemoration on Nov 9. (photo from Victoria Hillel)
The following remarks have been slightly modified from the original welcoming and closing addresses given at the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society’s annual Kristallnacht Commemoration, which took place at Congregation Emanu-El on Nov 9.
Shalom and welcome. Thank you all for coming to share in this evening of remembrance and resiliency. It is a dark Monday night in November, but you have chosen to be here. That is a statement in itself, and we thank you for taking part in tonight’s program.
We are remembering Nov. 9, 1938, a tragic night of destruction that carried on into the next day and was a portent of things to come. Remembering events such as these, as painful as they are, is vital. We don’t need to dwell on them so much as we need to draw on them for the lessons they can offer us.
Rabbi Harry Brechner of Congregation Emanu-El reminded me recently that one of our congregants, Steffi Porzecanski, may her memory be forever blessed, was a witness to the Night of Broken Glass. She lived in Berlin at the time. She would talk about how you couldn’t walk on the streets afterwards without feeling and hearing pieces of glass crunching under your feet. By the end of the destruction, some 1,000 synagogues had been burned, windows smashed, Jewish property damaged, ritual objects and cemeteries desecrated and some 30,000 Jews sent to concentration camps.
Sometimes, words are not sufficient in the face of epic horrors. Rabbi Leo Baeck, who also lived in Germany during this period, and who was eventually sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 but did ultimately survive, wrote a prayer some years before for Jews to read at Yom Kippur. This prayer was eventually banned by the Nazis. Near the end of the prayer, he says: “We are filled with sorrow and pain. In silence, will we give expression to all that which is in our hearts in moments of silence before our G-d. This silent worship will be more emphatic than any words could be.”
This is where we would like to begin tonight – allowing the silence to speak. I ask you to join me in just looking around our sanctuary and at our windows. All of the colors and nuances of our magnificently crafted windows can’t be fully appreciated at night, but they are, nevertheless, beautiful windows. At our early morning service on Thursdays, those of us who come are often treated to an extraordinary light show, as the soft, morning light gently begins touching on the blue glass.
We have all experienced the sound of breaking glass. Can we even begin to imagine the quiet and tranquility being shattered by the sound of window glass suddenly crashing to the ground and breaking into a thousand pieces, as happened in synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, beginning on that November night in 1938. The only reason? Because we were Jews. How would we feel if we witnessed that happening here, in our sanctuary, in our community, to these very windows?
As a symbol of our desire to work together in unity, to respect one another’s differences and to strive for a community that has tolerance and respect at its centre we will rebuild a window together tonight, a window resembling one of our very own windows.
While we are blessed to live somewhere where we haven’t had to witness an event like Kristallnacht, we also must be realistic of the need to remain vigilant and caring for one another in a world where such events have taken place and could, potentially, take place again. The more fractured and fragmented our world becomes, the more vital it is for us to come together, to put our differences aside and see each other on that most human level, stripped of labels and roles and categories. We may all pick our fruit from different trees, but we all share the same garden.
Tonight, as we commemorate the tragic events of that fateful November night and all that followed in its wake, we also recognize the strength and resilience of our people, the courage of the survivors, and we look towards the future with hope for a world where no group is targeted for attack, as the Jews were on the Night of Broken Glass and in the years that followed.
We are truly honored to have Holocaust survivors with us tonight, as well second- and third-generation descendants, representatives of political leadership, law enforcement agencies, faith groups and persons targeted for their sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, participating in this symbolic reconstruction and in our candlelighting ceremony.
Our candlelighters will light seven candles. Six of them represent the six million lives lost in the Shoah. The seventh candle represents the many other persecuted victims of the Shoah. It is also our candle of hope.
I’d like to thank our wonderful planning committee, our readers, volunteers and musicians for their hard work and dedication. Thank you, as well, to Rabbi Harry for his help and for his words. We are, again, especially honored and deeply grateful to our survivors, descendants of survivors and everyone who helped us with our candlelighting and our window building, especially Julius Maslovat (child Holocaust survivor), the b’nai mitzvah children from Congregation Emanu-El, local grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, MP Murray Rankin, Rabbi Harry of Congregation Emanu-El, Very Rev. Ansley Tucker, Constable Rae Robirtis from Victoria Police Department and Carmel Tanaka (Victoria Hillel director, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and interned Japanese-Canadians).
The many problems out there in the world sometimes seem too big and too overwhelming for us to solve. Rebuilding our window here tonight may seem small in comparison to the challenges that face us in the wider world. But tonight, as we gathered to remember a difficult chapter from our past, it is our hope that, together, we injected a little more shalom into the world.
In Hebrew, every word has a three-letter root from which other words are formed. From the same root for the word shalom, peace, comes the word shalem, whole, and shlemut, wholeness. Each time we inject more shalom into the world, we are, in essence, diminishing brokenness and creating more wholeness. A little shalom goes a long, long way.
Our window may be fragile, but it is full of possibility. The cracks are a necessary reminder of our vulnerability. They are the scars that must be there, reminding us of our past, reminding us of the Night of Broken Glass.
A window allows us to look in – in this case, looking into the past, back to Nov. 9, 1938. And a window allows us to look out. What is that world that we, as individuals and as a community, want to see when we look out? A window also shows us our reflection. Who do we see looking back at us? Who do we want to see?
Elisheva Gray is a member of the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society and is on the planning committee for the Kristallnacht Commemoration in Victoria.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.