A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 28, 2010
THOUGHTS WHILE HOLDING A CANDLE IN THE DARK
A Sermon on Hanukkah Anticipated
A candle is a small thing.
But one candle can light another.
And see how it’s own light increases,
as a candle gives its flame to the other.
You are such a light.
— Moshe Davis & Victor Ratner
Once upon a time a friend who is psychic told me that I’d been a rabbi in a fairly recent past life. I liked that. A lot. Although the sad truth is I’m goy to the bone. I still blush as I recall a school tour of a synagogue when I was nine or ten, when I asked the rabbi, as I didn’t see one anywhere else if the arrangement of the ceiling lights was their cross?
This doesn’t mean Judaism wasn’t part of my forming consciousness. My maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist theology, which meant our family’s theology included the belief that Jews are God’s chosen people, an ideology that had two consequences for us. The first was how important it was to convert the Jewish community, get ‘em back on the right side. Grandmother was often in correspondence with various Messianic Jewish organizations, writing checks out of her meager savings.
And, second, and more important was how nice she thought it would be if we were somehow Jewish, ourselves. Grandmother put a lot of hope in her own maternal grandmother who had, she thought, a Jewish sounding name. Genetic testing that Jan and I gave each other a couple of years ago as Christmas gifts, suggests this hope is rather unlikely. Nonetheless, as I said, I liked it when my friend pronounced I had once been a rabbi in some past life. Didn’t even matter that I don’t put much store in psychic pronouncements of any sort.
My spiritual pilgrimage began in my adolescence sparked by my serious doubts about the existence of the deity described in church. Over the years that have passed I’ve traveled a very long ways from fundamentalist Christianity and its concerns. Still, as I’ve walked my way, and life’s journey twisted and turned and I ended up here today as a Unitarian Universalist minister, with a liberal Buddhist theology, I still found it a treat that in general it is our UU custom is to pay attention to some Jewish holidays, honoring as we do this, our deep ancestral root. In fact some have suggested if there are Jews for Jesus, we UUs could be Christian’s for Moses. Well, but for the fact that only about twenty percent of us are particularly comfortable being identified as Christian.
However, nonetheless, there is that root. And there is little doubt whatever our current spiritual stance, so wide, perhaps even dangerously wide, although something in which I delight, and which allows someone like me a place in this community; nonetheless has a taproot. And while I would argue the rich soil that nourishes our tradition is ancient paganism particularly as expressed in the Greek philosophical tradition, still, I have no doubt the root itself is Judaism.
And so, I think, it more than helpful that we take time from time to time to look at the traditions of Judaism, particularly the holidays, and to consider what they may say to us as contemporary religious liberals. It is a conversation with our ancestors. And you never know what can come out of such shamanic endeavors. Can be dangerous for all connected to the enterprise. But with care and respect I believe there are lessons to be gleaned. And well worth the dangers.
Perhaps you’ve heard how someone goes to the rabbi and asks “When is Hanukkah this year?” And she replies, “Just like every year, silly. It starts on 25h of Kislev.” For the rest of the goys out there, that’s a Jewish joke, friends. The Jewish calendar is a modified lunar calendar. If it weren’t modified, it’d be like the Muslim lunar calendar where there’s an annual drift of eleven or twelve days, and so major festivals gradually wind around the whole year. In the Jewish calendar, there’s a bit of a float, but with little tweaks here and there which allows things to stay more or less in the same general area against the seasons. And, of course, the dates are constant within that calendar. Hence, as much as I hate to explain a joke, that question, and the rabbi’s response. In our Gregorian calendar, of course, what some call the universal secular calendar, this year Hanukkah runs for the first eight days of December.
So, why Hanukkah today, what’s the point? The title, you may have noticed, for next week’s sermon is “Light one Candle,” (a sermon title I seem to like. I noticed after announcing it that I preached with that title two years ago. Perhaps somewhere deep down I was hoping I’d get it right the next time ‘round.). That candle isn’t Peter, Paul and Mary’s lovely song of Jewish liberation, but rather Amnesty International’s light of justice for all. Although I suggest there are echoes in that small light for us to consider, today. I’ll return to that.
As most of us know Hanukkah is an extremely minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, one that has certainly only grown here in North America because of its rough proximity to Christmas. It’s become a way for the Jewish community to celebrate the season dominated by a much larger Christian cultural context.
But, that’s not the end of the matter. After that small irony of dealing with the season and its utility in standing out against Christmas, the ironies begin to pile upon each other. Especially for us, here. After all the story is, among other things, about a war between assimilationists and traditionalists, that is between religious liberals and conservatives, actually its not putting too fine a point on this to say fundamentalists. Not what one would think of as a ready theme for Unitarian Universalists and our magpie religious tradition, assimilating many themes and traditions into our ever-evolving, dynamic faith.
So, here’s the gateway into my point for today. The ironies within this holiday are almost endless. For instance, many, most scholars suggest Hanukkah is in fact itself rooted in ancient pagan festivals celebrating light at the darkest time of the year. In that sense its roots are as pagan as are the roots of the Christmas holiday. And then to compound the ironies its history of a fundamentalist victory over liberalism was first recorded by the Greek-speaking, think assimilationist, liberal Jewish community, and then preserved as part of their Holy Scripture by the early Christian community, think not friends.
The early rabbis were wary of the Maccabees and their holiday for several reasons, two principally. First the Maccabeean call to arms was a pyrrhic victory. Much ill would follow this revolt and its brief success. But also the Maccabeean blending of priestly and kingly power during the brief Hasmonean dynasty whose founding is the celebration of Hanukkah, had more than a shade of resemblance to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. All of this should be deeply troubling if one thinks about it. And the rabbis did.
The rabbinic commentators choose to focus their attention, as limited as it actually was, remember “minor holiday.” I’ve quoted the Reconstructionst rabbi Arthur Waskow before. I really like his thinking. Of this holiday he observes, “To the rabbis, it was crucial both to call for courage and hope, and to do so in a sphere other than military resistance, which they… viewed (through the tragic lens of historic hindsight) as hopeless and dangerous and self-destructive.” A point, perhaps, for all of us to recall.
Waskow continues, “…(T)he story the rabbis told about the Light was the story of the rabbis themselves – absorbing that the Maccabees’ military victory had saved the nation, but that getting stuck there would be self-destructive. They needed to bring the Higher Consciousness of courage for Enlightenment into the people’s arsenal of spiritual ‘weaponry.’”
Higher consciousness. What should higher consciousness mean for us? Personally, I’m more inclined to the simpler word wisdom. And, I’m taken by that seeking of wisdom, which very much is in the story as the rabbis tell it. But to find it takes not being bound too tightly by the text or the history. Rather we need to allow the telling to be shaped by our deeper calling: toward our true freedom, to a way of genuine wisdom. And we should try to do this because reshaped it is our heart story. It is about how we can find the light, how we can find our depth, our possibility: the way of the wise heart.
And the wise heart must juggle contradictory information.
The scholar and author Rachel Adelman cites columnist David Brooks, in his December 10th, 2009 op-ed in the New York Times. Brooks describes Hanukkah as “’the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.’ For Brooks, the story of Hanukkah is a ‘self-congratulatory morality tale,’ commemorating a Civil War, a war in which he may have fought on the side of the Hellenizers.’” I’ve always liked Brooks, as they say, the liberal’s favorite conservative.
And, there are deeper currents yet. Adelman also cites the great Jewish scholar Theodore Herzl Gaster, who “suggests that the Hanukkah story is essentially about the inalienable right to be different. The festival teaches the value of ‘the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion. The struggle was not only against oppression from without but equally against corruption and complacency within. It was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”
Both, and. If we want to be spiritual adults, if we want wisdom, we’re going to have to take our history and our myth all mixed up. Which is fine, as long as we’re respectful, careful, and engaging in all this to a purpose.
The purpose for us is that we find the light, that one miraculous light that lasts well past any possible reasonable effort. It is the path of passion, and heart. And this is our task, as it has been the task of every soul over the many generations. To take what is given, to look deeply into the matter at hand, and to allow ourselves to be transformed and in that transforming to become spiritual adults. To become people who can take on the work that needs to be done.
There is little doubt today that our liberal religious tradition is the minority position. We are the weak in this struggle for hearts and minds. Right now ours is the unpopular voice that is nearly lost in the thunder of public opinion. And the call for us is a struggle, and it is a struggle not only against every oppression from beyond those walls, but to fiercely resist corruption of this spirit, losing to our own complacency. That is the small light we are called to notice today, the light burning in our hearts, the light that shows the way.
I suggest this story and our working with it calls us, you and me, to resist the dying of the light, to shine forth beyond all reasonable expectations, to become, each and every one of us by our example, by our willingness to not turn away, by our challenging all authority, particularly that voice in the back of our heads that says turn away.
Each of us needs to be that small candle in the great wind. And in doing so become the miracle.
And how do we do this? Question authority, of course. Particularly our own. Looking deeply, not just to do something, but to find ourselves, and our place in the family of things. We do this and the flame we are will leap from our hearts to another. And there becomes a chance for this poor, hurt world.
The spiritual writer Clark Strand shifts the image of that flame just a little bit, perhaps in a way that can help. He notices how we can also use as our image how the world itself is on fire, consumed in a conflagration of grasping and hatred and endless certainties. And to which we can bring a different flame, that spiritual possibility, that small light.
Clark sings to us.
To this burning house
Of a world, I add one log
And a little light.
May this turning of the heart, of our becoming the flame of possibility become the Hanukkah flame. May it burn, and burn, transforming our own hearts, and showing this beautiful suffering world a way.
That’s our challenge. That’s our possibility.