Channukah 5770: "Holiday of Rights"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
in memory of Rabbi Yochanan Muffs, z"l
My teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Muffs, was a very special person. He taught Bible with unconstrainable passion, and doggedly continued offering small classes for decades at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America despite his long struggle with Parkinson's Disease. He died this past Sunday, and I would like to connect an experience I had with him to Channukah and Human Rights Shabbat.
First, a memory of my teacher: Due to his impeded mobility, most of Professor Muff's teaching took place in his JTS office. In one of the final classes of my rabbinical school career, he asked us a question: "Why do you think I named my most recent book "Love & Joy?" This collection of essays by Professor Muffs explores the involvement of God in questions human morality. We tried valiantly to interpret the title, to no avail. Whereupon Professor Muffs smiled a cherubic smile and said: "It's just so beautiful - that's why!"
If a scholarly book analyzing the anthropomorphic and moral implications of the Torah's vision of God can be beautiful and joyous, then so can our world - including all its moral questions. This coming Shabbat has been designated Human Rights Shabbat by Rabbis for Human Rights and K'vod Habriot: A Jewish Human Rights Network. We are, as Netivot Shalom, committed to this vision of a just world, free of slavery, human trafficking, and torture. When would be a more appropriate time to affirm this than Channukah, a holiday in which light banishes darkness?
The original instruction to place the Channukah lights in the window was called "Pirsumei deNisa/Publicizing the Miracle," echoed in public menorah lightings which today speckle a complex North American landscape. But every tradition is part of our shifting emotional lives. Whereas Jews were once marginalized against their wills, resulting in hidden demonstrations of particularity, today's candles-in-the-window are different. We don't hide our Jewishness - we are proud and present. But what of those whose particularities are still marginalized? Which moments call us to symbolically be the Shamash, illuminating the lives of others?
This Friday night, when we light our Channukah lights, who are they for? Do they light our way out, or invite others in? Professor Muffs, in his life's pursuit of Torah, called for a remythologizing (not a demythologizing) of our theology - one that challenges us to delight in the mythic character of God as a poetically formulated model of our own emerging humanity. Not all of us believe in God, and no one must. But if we could imagine a God worth believing in, we might perhaps describe a inclusive, dynamic, force for universal justice. And then, when we bless the Channukah lights, we would be, in fact, pointing to the One who somehow provides a model for what Humanity could - and should - be. And the world would be a much better, brighter place - for everyone.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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