Cantor Kalman Socolof

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A Message from Cantor Socolof

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."-- George Santayana

"History is bunk."--Henry Ford

Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes struck by the extent to which famous quotes can contradict each other, as in the case of the above two. Santayana was speaking of the value in learning from history; about the cyclical nature of human endeavors and the opportunity to learn from those who have gone before. Ford, on the other hand, felt that history had no bearing on the present; that we have the ability to make our own destiny and we benefit by not being bound to prior expectations.

Of course, this begs the question: as Jews, which way do we lean? Towards learning from history, or ignoring it? As you probably guessed, we tend more towards history. And why not? Our history stretches back over three thousand years. It is full of nobility, treachery, happiness, tragedy and all of the other polar opposites that establish the boundaries of human experience. Jewish history provides a wealth of material for study and contemplation on the experiences of others.

That said, it is possible to be so bound to history (or, if you prefer, tradition) that one lacks the flexibility necessary to adapt. The world is a maelstrom of change, and one fixed set of rules can never be adequate to address all of the possible circumstances with which we must contend. The true genius of Judaism is its inherent capacity for modification. Torah serves as the foundation on which the edifice of halacha has been built, generation by generation. For millennia rabbis have studied the Torah, as well as the thoughts and pronouncements of their predecessors. They have then used these as a way to make Judaism apply to the issues of their day. In doing so, their decisions transcend any one time or place, and meld into a continuum of Jewish living, available as source material to all Jews, everywhere, at any time. We see this in the Talmud, where the rabbinic discussions are structured so that a conversation or even an argument can be held between two rabbis who actually lived hundreds of years apart. To a large extent, our questions were their questions, and their answers can inform us.

This brings us to Chanukah. Of all of the pre-modern Jewish holidays, Chanukah joins Tisha B‟Av as one of only two which originate from a verifiable historical incident. Just as we have mourned the destruction of the Temples for millennia, so have we celebrated the victory of the Maccabees and their subsequent rededication of the Temple. For century after century Jews have used their chanukiyot, dreidels and fried foods as a way of commemorating events of long ago. The mitzvah of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle.

But our observance of Chanukah took time to develop. There is precious little mention of it in the Mishnah. It is only later, in the Gemara, that we get details on the specifics of how, when and where to light the Chanukah lights. There are three pages of information on lighting the lights as opposed to only three lines about the events themselves. This might be an indication of the passing of Chanukah from history to canonization.

Interestingly, Chanukah is really a story of the conflict between tradition and change. As much as the Maccabees fought off the Syrian Greeks who invaded Judea and desecrated the Temple, they fought their fellow Jews who embraced Hellenistic culture. The Maccabean revolt was very much a fight to reinforce "traditional values."

When we celebrate the holiday, we are caught between the idea of holding the line and the changes that must inevitably occur to enhance and even guarantee our celebrations. This dynamic between tradition and change is the bedrock of Conservative Judaism. It is what allows us to see Chanukah not just as a celebration of mythical ancestors, but as a reminder of the challenge given to us: to adapt Torah to the modern world, to be instruments of light and to be joyful. May we all embrace those challenges, and work to meet them with all of our hearts, all of our souls and all of our might.

Happy Chanukah!
Cantor Socolof