Liberating Light – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

A friend of mine, years ago, used to go regularly and see experimental dance in Chicago. Her absolute favorite was when two dancers came on stage facing away from each other. A third dancer came out in the middle and gave them both the same instructions. Then the dancers would do what they believed they’d been told to do. But their performances always unfolded differently. Even though they’d been given the same instructions, they interpreted them in unique ways. It’s amazing how two people can experience the same thing in completely different ways. 

In many ways, the same is true for the Hanukkah story. While everyone seems to agree that Hanukkah is about a miracle, there are different interpretations of just what that miracle was. Like any religious tradition, there are different threads of authority, distinct schools of thought and belief in Judaism. Early on, it’s believed that Hanukkah celebrated the story of the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians. Scholars think the story of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight days came along later, when Jewish territory was again occupied by a different military force that wouldn’t have taken too kindly to the Jews contemplating another overthrow.  

Our free faith is one that draws wisdom from many sources, including other faith traditions. This freedom and posture of inclusion is central to Unitarian Universalism, and it invites us as a congregation to welcome people from many backgrounds, theologies, and cultures to be their fullest selves, and to share the traditions they wish to share with us. Now, I have studied Hebrew and read Torah, I’ve celebrated Hanukkah and Sukkot, Purim and Passover with lots of Jewish friends over the years. And I’m preaching today from a place of deep respect for Jewish traditions. But I am not Jewish. Hanukkah is not my holiday. And yet, I am so thankful to the many Jews in this congregation who, year after year, choose to share their culture and traditions with the rest of us. Our congregation is richer for all of the beautiful ways the holy shines through our diversity. 

While this diversity brings blessing and richness, it can also bring challenge, too. If two dancers can take away completely different interpretations of the same instructions, and if two different miracle stories can emerge out of the same religious holiday, just imagine how many perspectives and opinions can emerge in a congregation of this many people, with such different backgrounds and cultures, philosophies and deeply held convictions. Pain, loss, and trauma can impact the way we interpret the world, too. All of this is why freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew are so important in our tradition. In a context of such diversity and freedom, I must be free to preach truth as I understand it, and you must be free to believe as you feel you must, whether you agree with me or not.

As a “big tent” faith where diversity of belief is our starting place, we are called to engage with more perspectives than just our own. We are challenged to go beyond focusing just on the perspectives we find comfortable, centering the miracles we prefer. For me as a preacher, this means I must engage not only with the easier Hanukkah miracle of the oil lasting longer than it should have, but also the much more complicated miracle story of military conquest. And in order for me to preach with integrity about the Hanukkah story, in order for me to take the Hanukkah story authoritatively and seriously, I must acknowledge the brutal war in Israel Palestine, and how it’s further polarized our already divided nation and world.

This is a scary time to be Jewish, as anti-semitic violence and harassment is on the rise. Many Jewish families are choosing not to place menorahs in their windows, for fear that they might attract harassment or violence. Town and city Hanukkah celebrations around the country have been canceled, some out of fear of public violence, others because event organizers didn’t want to be seen as “taking sides” in the conflict. Both Jews and Palestinians in this country are navigating a society that is projecting a whole lot of beliefs, assumptions, and often ill-informed opinions onto them. Just being Jewish doesn’t mean a person automatically agrees with the war Israel is waging in Gaza, or with the Israeli occupation of Gaza that was happening for generations before the war began. Israel doesn’t equal Judaism, and Judaism doesn’t equal Israel, just like Palestinians don’t equal Hamas and Hamas doesn’t equal Palestinians. 

In a world so deeply scarred by the impact of Christian hegemony and colonization, I have been reluctant to share my opinions about this war (and the conditions that led to it), not because I am intimidated by opposing views, but because I don’t think my opinion should matter all that much. The last thing anyone needs to focus on right now is what some white, non-Jewish, white lady thinks about geo politics in the Middle East. The only thing I do feel compelled to preach, and which I believe the Hanukkah story has been passed down through countless generations to teach, is that terrorism and hostage holding are awful, that bombing civilians won’t lead to peace, and that all people deserve to live in freedom. 

As Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg, Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, writes: 

“It is in both Netanyahu and Hamas’ interests for [us] to take extreme positions. The path to Palestinian freedom, and to peace and safety for everyone, requires seeing everyone’s humanity and rooting for everyone’s liberation. That’s the way out. That’s the only way through. 

We can refuse to root for the safety and lives and rights of human beings like they are sports teams. In which there are winners and losers. In which safety is a finite resource that must be hoarded. I don’t know what the way out is politically8, but I believe in finding the will, and in finding the way.

Hanukkah is a celebration of Jewish religious and cultural survival against incredible odds. But it’s also a story about how harmful it is for people to live under occupation, denied basic rights that others enjoy. I can think of no better way to end this sermon than with the words of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dan Schatz, Minister of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester, PA. He writes: 

The word Chanukah means ‘dedication.’ In Judaism this festival celebrates the rededication of the temple after a terrible civil war devastated Jewish society and the city of Jerusalem. After that time, the Maccabees, victorious in the battle, ritually cleaned the temple and lit the sacred lamps. As most of us know, there was only enough oil for one night, but by a miracle that oil lasted eight nights.

I think maybe the Maccabees needed those eight nights, because they had to rededicate themselves as well. They had been warriors, but now the people needed to learn to live with each other as neighbors again. The Maccabees had to turn from battle to peacemaking. That the Jewish community stayed together, and that the festival of Chanukah is still celebrated today, is proof that they succeeded.

As war rages in Israel and Palestine today, my hope and prayer is for that kind of rededication – from war to peace, from destruction to rebuilding, from tearing the fabric of society to weaving it anew, so that in a coming day there will be not merely an absence of war, but a just peace for all the people. This season, may all of us kindle a light of peace.