Temple, Synagogue, Shul, and Light
Ner l’echud, ner l’meah/ One person’s candle can be a candle for a hundred. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 122a
Harbeh meaorot yesh ba’or/ Within light are many lights. Babylomian Talmud Mesechet Brachot 52b
Talmud gadol sh’mayvi liday ahava / The greatness of learning (Torah) is that it leads to love (of Judaism). Achad Ha’am
Every star is a fading sun So c’mon, light it up Every kid got to hit the ground and run Let’s light it up “Light It Up” by Joey Tempest, John Norum, and John Leven from the Europe album War of Kings
It’s time to talk Chanukah. So I’ll just take a wee break from hangin’ latkes on the ol’ Chanukah bush and sit down a spell and lay some pearls of wisdom on ya.
On Wednesday, December 10, I’ll be giving a class on Chanukah, the real story, and how it helped form the Jewish personality. In that class I’ll explain the actual historical circumstances of Chanukah, the development of the various beliefs, legends, and customs of Chanukah, and how they helped form the Jewish personality (or personalities).
The events of Chanukah also led to the development of the institution of the synagogue and influenced Judaism being characterized by that institution, which featured a combination of prayer and Torah study replacing a central institution, the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple), that was a place primarily of prayer and animal sacrifice.
On the 10th we’ll learn about how these traditions, legends, and practices arose; but let it suffice to say that the events that we collectively call Chanukah set in motion a process that led to the increased development of soferim/scribes from the kohanim/priests—this led to the emergence of a new competing sect with new interpretations known as the Perushim/Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the rabbis who were the creators of the Judaism practiced to this day, whether Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.
The most apparent mitzvah of Chanukah is the lighting of the menorah. We are all familiar with the legend of the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees following their victory over their Seleucid oppressors, the setting up of the menorah as the central part of that rededication, and how a vial of oil meant for one day’s light miraculously burned for eight days.
The rabbis focus on the menorah because they see or/light as a metaphor for the learning of Torah. Light, Torah study, must be central to this most important Jewish institution. It is often explained that our prayers in the synagogue replace the sacrifices performed in the Beit HaMikdash. However, that is a shallow understanding. In the Beit HaMikdash, prayers and psalms were intoned, chanted, and sung accompanied by instrumental performance. The emphasis on the importance of the menorah symbolizes that in the synagogue Torah study is to be the main focus, accompanied by devotional prayer and melodic, inspirational song. That is why the Torah service is the central part of the Shabbat service. The Torah is supposed to be understood, not just listened to as some sort of incomprehensible chanting. In fact the trope the Torah is chanted to is supposed to enhance understanding of the text. However, those trope don’t serve the same purpose today, as the necessary cultural cues are non-existent. Today, the chanting of the trope is a fossil, basically a musical score from an earlier era that now has no comprehensibility. In our time the sound of the chanting of the Torah is only comforting “synagogue noise” that is an important component of a traditional synagogue experience. In antiquity, before books were common as they are today, after each aliyah a Meturgaman, or translator, would translate, comment on, and explain what had just been read. Today, with the benefit of English translations (although some of those need translating), we need only have explanation and commentary. It is the duty of the rabbi to take his learning (the candle for one) and make it light for many, the congregation. The beauty and strength of that light is that each person can make his or her own and even develop from it new light and new insights and understandings, since within that light are many lights. There is a rabbinic concept of being m’chadesh chidushim, of each generation taking that spark and rekindling that light of Torah and creating new light to illuminate the Torah.
Achad Ha’am was correct. I meet so many alienated Jews who tell me that they became turned off to Judaism because there was no intellectual stimulation or interaction in the Judaism that they have experienced. I have often been told by people who are visiting our congregation for a simcha or other occasion that if they would have been exposed to services like ours that feature engaging commentary, ideas, and understanding of text, they would have become more frequent shul attendees. The word shul says it all. Shul doesn’t translate to “synagogue.” Shul means school. When you come to synagogue, to shul, you have the opportunity to understand your Judaism. When you understand it you will love it more.
Chanukah Samayach, Menashe