Chanukah – Why do we light those candles? Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il

This morning I was musing about Chanukah and the great unprecedented events of our time, the recent death of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Kim Yong Il of North Korea with my Mormon trainer, Steven. Yes, my trainer Steven, is a committed and practicing Mormon. We train and we talk twice a week. This morning it was about the unexpected death of Kim Yong Il, the North Korean “Great Leader”, the starvation and virtual imprisonment of the North Korean people who are dominated by a well fed and well armed military. North Korea is the world’s most militarized nation, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. It is a nuclear-weapons state and has an active space program. (wikipedia) and this led us to think about how the few enslave the many via ideology all over the world.

Jonathon Kay writes, Kim Il-sung knew that the only way to legitimize his repressive, impoverished regime was to insulate subjects from the outside world (the dials on North Korean radios are soldered so as to lock them in permanently to the state propaganda network) and to turn himself into an ersatz deity. Over 500 statues of Kim Il-sung dot the North Korean landscape, and a revisionist history of his days as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter have been embellished to the point that they seem like something out of a 1980s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

It seems the pen is mightier than the sword and both sides know it.

So what does this have to do with Chanukah? I share with you this video that lays out the background of the Chanukah story.

Chanukah is the story of the weak and the few against the strong and the many. However there is another important lesson that we learn from this video and the Chanukah story. The lesson of knowing what to fight for. The Macabees were fighting the ideology of the Greeks which conflicted with the human rights articulated by the torah. This is what gave them the courage to fight because they understood that fighting for these principles was more important than life itself.

Vaclav Havel, who fought against the same kind of enslavement as in North Korea by the former Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, and won, understood both of these issues.

And after he succeeded in freeing his people, he is quoted by Irwin Cotler sharing this important truth, “those who would repress the human rights of their own citizens will threaten the rights of the citizens of other countries.” We are seeing this manifesting all over the world, in Syria, Iran, where tyrants are willing to fight to the death to buttress their own power, they endanger all of us with their power and their arsenals.

None of us have crystal balls regarding the future, but the story of Chanukah reminds us to light the candle, and not give up the struggle. Again I quote Vaclav Havel, the only lost cause is the one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Let’s light those candles, remind ourselves why we are lighting them, and take courage from the victories of those who have shown the way.

Religion and Politics, Shmuely Boteach and Yehuda Amital

This morning, a Mormon friend shared with me a post by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Are Mormons any weirder than the rest of us? The article artfully analyzes all religions and how to evaluate them. I quote from his article:

Hence, our concern need not be with a person’s faith in public office. It does not matter if he or she is Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon or Muslim. What does matter is whether the person’s faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God’s children, or whether that person sees the purpose of his or her high station to promote a particular religion.

By their works ye shall know them.

 

I believe that is from the Christian scriptures but it is the essence of the Boteach article and the standard by which all people, religious or not, should be judged.

So is religion important or valuable. Can religions be judged? I would like to share with you in this context a review of the life of Rabbi Yehuda Amital. His biography was just published in Israel. BY FAITH ALONE: THE STORY OF RABBI YEHUDA AMITAL by Elyashiv Reichner, translated by Elli Fischer (Maggid/Koren Publishers, 377 pp, $29.95)

If you are not going to go out and read the book, this review by Yehudah Mirsky is a powerful description of the interplay between the Jewish religion and how it affected the life and thought of Rabbi Yehuda Amital and how he in turn educated a generation of religious Israelis.

By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, Elyashiv Reichner’s newly translated biography, is an attempt to understand an extraordinary man and his long, arduous path from a simple Jewish life in prewar Hungary to a unique and controversial place in Israeli religious and political life.

 

Amital was born Yehuda Klein in 1924, in the Transylvanian city of Grosswardein (Oradea), home to Hasidim, acculturated and assimilated Jews, Jewish-Hungarian nationalists, and a large concentration of Hungary’s Religious Zionists. After rudimentary schooling, he spent his childhood and adolescence in yeshiva… His father was a tailor and he might well have become one too, had he not been forced to witness the murder of his culture. In May 1944, he was taken away to a brutal forced labor camp, but managed to sneak in an anthology of Kook’s writings with him. His family was sent to Auschwitz. Having twice sworn during his time in the camp that if he survived he would study Torah in Jerusalem, home to his grandparents and two uncles, he made his way there after his liberation. He threw himself into his studies at the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, acquiring a reputation for fervent, independent-minded spirituality, and for his mastery of halakhic literature…The day after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, a Shabbat, Amital enlisted in the IDF. He fought in Latrun and in the Galilee in 1948, and founded a journal in which he published perhaps the first programmatic essay by anyone on being a Jewish soldier in a Jewish army. While savoring Jewish national self-defense in the wake of the Holocaust, he also projected Jewish law and values as a defense against the dehumanization and brutalization of wartime…

He went on to marry and to lead a Hesder Yeshiva in Israel for many years. Hesder is the term for Yeshivas (religious schools) that believe in Israeli army service along with Jewish religious study.

He was also major original political thinker, drawing on his religious study.

Even on the Left, he was as unconventional, unpredictable, and free of clichés as he had been on the Right. In December 1982, he addressed the founding meeting of Netivot Shalom, a religious peace movement (fledgling, then and now) and inveighed against what he said were the three false messianisms stalking the land: Gush Emunim, Peace Now, and that of  Ariel Sharon. Each, he said, presumed to solve complex questions with a single simple answer, respectively: faith, good intentions, and force. But, he said, we need all three, and the wisdom of balance….

 

The yearning for redemption is rooted not in the [Jewish] people’s terrible suffering, rather the desire to do good for humanity is the essence of its soul.

 

This, from a Holocaust survivor, was astounding. Promoting a universal ethical vision, he said, must be of the essence of Zionism, not only to save it from the moral hazards of violent chauvinism, but precisely because the ethical message is itself the divine word that Israel is charged with spreading. As he later explained to an interviewer, the difference between his vision of Israel as “a light unto the nations” and Ben-Gurion’s, was rooted in the fact that without a divine foundation, ethical universalism would not survive.

World Religions Conference: The Dalai Lama and words from the Scripture

Last Wednesday I attended the World Religions conference in Montreal featuring his Holiness The Dalai Lama, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Prof. Robert Thurman, Prof. Tariq Ramadan, Prof. Gregory Baum, and Prof. Steven T. Katz.

Deepak Chopra advised that although most of the world does follow some religion, the religion brand on the internet reaching millions is not very positive. The questions from the audience were mostly earnest questions wondering how religion could address real life issues such as poverty etc. The question really is, do religious texts and practices have any value in the modern world? Rabbis are scholars of Jewish text and practice and they also publish on the internet. I share with you here one teaching based on a source torah text, written yesterday.

Every week, Jews all over the world chant and study the same portion of the torah text. This teaching addresses the text which will be read in synagogues all over the world this coming Sabbath.