Weekly Letter: In Defense of Public Menorah Lightings

This week, as we approach Chanukah, we present a letter from the Rebbe on the issue of the Public Menorah Lighting campaign of Chabad — to a community leader who expressed objections to this public display of a Jewish practice. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

The Rebbe weighs in on this debate and brings a number of valid points in support of this campaign, and broadens its scope to include other Jewish practices we do in public, and how to deal with it.

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                                                                                                                      By the Grace of G-d

3rd of Teves, 5742

Brooklyn, N.Y.

President, Jewish Community Council

Teaneck, N.J. 07666

Blessing and Greeting:

Although the subject matter of our correspondence, namely, the placing of a Chanukah Menorah Lamp on public property, has now no immediate relevance, since Chanukah has passed, it touches upon a fundamental principle which has its ramifications beyond the immediate issue.

Hence the following remarks in response to your request for my views regarding the concerns expressed in our correspondence.

  1. To begin with, it should be noted that when it comes to a relationship between two different ethnic groups, which aims at delineating their respective concerns etc., it is not enough when one of the parties resolves to follow a certain policy in the hope of avoiding an undesirable reaction on the part of the other party. For, obviously, it has no control over the other party, which may react in one of three ways: favorably, unfavorably or indifferently. Thus, there is no assurance that the policy which may be well intended to call forth a favorable reaction, may actually turn out to be counterproductive.
  2. Since the time of the dispersion of our Jewish people, following our exile from our land, Jews have lived as a minority among the nations, often a very small minority. The problem of coexistence has thus always been present in the Diaspora and most of the time in an acute form. Although circumstances varied from time to time, and from place to place, requiring policy adjustments on the part of the Jewish minority as to how to relate to the non-Jewish majority, there has also been a common denominator which has been a decisive consideration at all times and in all places of Jewish dispersion. This has been the regrettable but unavoidable fact that the gentile majority, especially one that did not fully live up to the prescriptions of the Divine moral precepts (the so-called “Seven Noahite Laws”, with all their ramifications, which G-d ordained for the descendents of Noah, i.e. all humanity, after the Flood, as stated in the Torah, Gen. 9:1-17) – has generally considered itself entitled to everything, while anything it granted to the minority was considered an act of grace. So much so that it came to regard the minority as having fully acquiesced in this relationship, even if the minority called its requests “demands” of privileges it considered itself entitled to.
  3. Under such circumstances, if the minority voluntarily gives up certain privileges which it once enjoyed, not to mention if it voluntarily forgoes a certain right which the same minority enjoys elsewhere – it is bound to be regarded as a sign of weakness and an admission that it is not really entitled to it at all. Many illustrations could be cited, but there is no need to expand on this in a letter, especially in a situation which is assumed of a local character, requiring a local approach.
  4. There is, of course, a directive in the Torah not to “taunt” an adversary, but the emphasis is on “taunting”; it does not mean at all that we have to surrender positions we have won over the years.
  5. Even if “low profile” or concessionary tactic has been followed in a community and it seemed to have worked for a time, with the other side refraining from asserting itself, there is no assurance that this policy will always be effective. In a democratically free country like the U.S.A., with periodic elections, one can never know who the next public officials or community leaders will be, and what their policy will be.

With the above prefatory remarks in mind, let us now consider the practical implications of the issue under discussion.

The Jewish community in the U.S.A. is as old as the U.S.A. itself. We know the problems it faced and the actual discrimination it suffered, until it has won its place in this country. Yet, even in this day and age – prejudices and anti-Semitism exist, not only latently but also overtly. Under these circumstances, we must not relax our alertness to any sign of erosion of our hard-won positions.

One of these positions is the annual lighting of a Chanukah Menorah in public places. As mentioned in my previous letter, such Chanukah Menorahs have been kindled in the Nation’s capital (in Lafayette Park, facing the White House), in Manhattan, Albany, Philadelphia, Chicago and in many other cities of the Union. There has been no opposition to their being placed on public property from non-Jewish quarters. Regrettably, there have been some Jews who did raise objections in several places out of fear that kindling a menorah on public property would call attention to the fact that there are Jews living in that city; Jews who would apparently be willing to forego the claim that the public place belongs also to them, as part of the public.

I also pointed out that in Washington D.C. , the President personally attended the ceremony; that in New York City, the Attorney General of the State of New York participated in the ceremony and elsewhere public officials and dignitaries were on hand at this public event. There is no need for any stronger evidence that the Chanukah Menorah – with its universal message, which is especially akin to the spirit of liberty and independence of this nation – has won place not only in Jewish life, but also in the life of the American people.

In light of the above, when a Jewish community anywhere in the U.S.A. publicly raises objections to placing a Chanukah Menorah in a public place – on whatever grounds, and however well intentioned – it thereby jeopardizing the Jewish position in general. It is also undermining its own position in the long run, as mentioned above. With all due respect to the claim that hitherto this policy has resulted in a “steady reduction of all Christological elements in public life,” I doubt whether these have been eliminated completely, but granted, for the sake of argument, that this is the case, it would be most exceptional and unnatural in American life, since by and large the American people is Christian. Someday, someone will raise the question, “why should Teaneck be different from any other American town, and be hindered by Jews – a minority – from expressing itself in terms of religious symbols?”  The answer that Jews on their part, likewise refrained from placing a Chanukah Menorah in a public place – will hardly satisfy the majority of the Teaneck population.

Now to come to the essential point. Why is it so important for Jews to have a Chanuah Menorah displayed publicly? The answer is that experience has shown that the Chanukah Menorah displayed publicly during the eight days of Chanukah has been an inspiration to many, many Jews and evoked in them a spirit of identity with their Jewish people and the Jewish way of life. To many others it has brought a sense of pride in their Yiddishkeit and the realization that there is no reason, really, in this free country, to hide one’s Jewishness, as if it were contrary or inimical to American life and culture. On the contrary, it is fully in keeping with the American national slogan “e pluribus unum” and the fact that American culture has been enriched by the thriving ethnic cultures which contributed very much, each in its own way, to American life, both materially and spiritually.

Certainly, Jews are not in the proselytizing business. The Chanukah Menorah is not intended to and can in no way bring converts to Judaism. Bu it can and does bring many Jews back to their Jewish roots. I personally know of scores of such Jewish returnees, and I have good reason to believe, that in recent years, hundreds and even thousands of Jews experience a kindling of their inner Jewish spark by the public kindling of the Chanukah Menorah in their particular city and in the Nation’s capital, etc., as publicized by the media.

In summary, Jews, either individually or communally, should not create the impression that they are ashamed to show their Jewishness or that they wish to gain their neighbors’ respect by covering up their Jewishnes. Nor will this attitude insure their rights to which they are entitled, including the privilege of publicly lighting a Chanukah Menorah, a practice which has been sanctioned by precedent and custom, as to become a tradition.

I also must point out that I do not think that a Jewish community can disregard its responsibility to other Jewish commutates in regard to an issue of this kind, which cannot remain localized, and must have its impact on other Jewish communities and community relations.

 

With esteem and

Blessing,

P.S. I trust you are aware of other instances involving Jewish practices in public, such as wearing a beard by Jewish servicemen in the U.S. military, wearing a yarmulke in a Court of Law, etc., which Jews insisted upon and won as their inalienable rights. Further information, if desired, may be obtained from the pertinent Jewish organizations, such as COLPA and others.

 

P.P.S. I fail to understand your remark in response to my emphasizing the point that the personal attendance of the U.S. President at the ceremony of lighting the Chanukah Menorah, clearly shows that it is constitutional, legal and proper, etc. You take exception to this on the ground that the President did not participate in the following year, but instead sent two Jewish appointees, etc. I do not see how this is supposed to disprove my point. The fact remains that the President did participate personally; that the Menorah continues to be kindled in the same place annually. As to why he did not appear personally again – this is understandable, for it is somehow awkward for a President of the U.S.A. to attend a public ceremony where he cannot be honored with the lighting of a candle (not being a Jew); so he chose to send his Jewish representatives. It is also understandable why a President of the U.S.A. is not bound to follow his predecessor as to what public appearance he wishes to grace by his presence.

The important thing, again, is that a tradition has been established and the President of the U.S.A. saw fit to inaugurate this. It surprises me that your representatives did not mention it when the issue came up for discussion in your community.

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The above letter is from The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).

These letters were written originally in English and were prepared for publication by Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, whose responsibility it was the Rebbe’s correspondence in English and several other languages.

We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.

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