Are you a Chanukah insider or outsider?

Rabbis have debated whether to share the light with the outside world or simply among Jews


Outside or inside?? Where do you put your menorah? The polarity which exists between an outward-looking Judaism and its antithesis of circling the wagons to defend what we have comes to the fore at Chanukah. Giant menorot lit by celebrities are a testament to the put-your-menorah-outsiders’ determination to bring the Chanukah message to the widest possible audience.

Menorah-insiders, however, blush with embarrassment when a Volvo estate, sporting a lit menorah on its roof and Ma’oz Tzur blaring from huge external speakers dangling precariously from the wing mirrors, crawls down the Golders Green Road As the traffic piles up behind the driver, now stood distributing latkes and doughnuts, menorah-insiders cringe

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was a leading insider, arguing that the pirsumei nissa, the publicising of the Chanukah miracle, only applies to other Jews. If you live among Jews, then put your menorah outside but otherwise keep it indoors. Its message is for Jews only.

The outsiders are supported by the current leader of the yeshivah faction of Orthodoxy — Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. The Chanukah message is for everyone. Great as their influence is within the Orthodox community, if we are to consider who most personified this idea of changing the world through spreading Jewish ideal, one name dwarfs all others.

So as we approach the festival which most lends itself to a Judaism which engages in the marketplace of ideas, the loss of Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks is felt so sharply. Who managed to promote our way of life, our values and our philosophy to a secular world which embraced him so enthusiastically with such impact? Pirsumei nissa without its greatest ever exponent seems hollow.

However, it was not always quite like that. The young Jonathan Sacks was a galaxy away from the polished performer who was in demand across religious groupings and in every part of the globe. I remember the first time I heard him crack a joke from the pulpit.

Gone was the slightly gauche, withdrawn genius. There was guile with which he held back the punchline, followed by the explosion of his own laughter and a facial expression which betrayed his surprise at how brilliant a comic he had become. Had I overlooked this comic ability over the youthful years that I had known him?

I quizzed him closely about the origins of the newfound wit and humour of Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks. “Books” he retorted. Foolish of me to ask. What did not come easily he would find in books, which through assiduous toil he could absorb in gargantuan volumes. He would rework the ideas presented, apply them and hey presto — today a comic genius, another day a polished orator and ultimately one of the greatest and most admired Chief Rabbis our community has ever seen.

He once had a scheme to form a group of like-minded young men who would study together and become a cadre for his style of Judaism. At our first meeting, 20-something twenty-somethings crowded into a small flat where we were hosted by a graduate of Gateshead and Mir Yeshivot.

Dr Sacks, as he was then, told us that he was going to talk about the importance of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy for Jewish theology. Those who thought he was joking were quickly disappointed. He spoke for 75 impenetrable minutes. At the 15-minute mark, I was the last man standing, just about making sense of some of the sentences.

At the end Jonathan invited questions. The host stood up and spoke in Yiddish for 15 minutes. Employing the Cambridge usage, Dr Sacks replied, “Terribly sorry but I didn’t take Yiddish. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand a word of your question” A triumphant grin spread across our host’s face. “Well now you know how we felt for the last hour and a quarter!”

Never did I ever hear him misjudge an audience again. Every speech, shiur or derashah was carefully crafted for the moment and for that special audience and that special place. I don’t know if there is a Cambridge Guide to Assessing your Audience but somehow he overhauled his modus operandi. From then on it was the audience that he put at the heart of his teaching.

He was the greatest of “publicisers of the miracle” and we will miss his skill and brilliance over Chanukah but our loss is also felt daily.

The same inside/outside dichotomy of placing the menorah also plays out in the twin ideas of Kiddush Hashem— the Sanctification of God’s Name — and its antonym Chillul Hashem, the Defamation of God’s name. For many this is only applicable to Jewish audiences. Kiddush Hashem is achieved through doing mitzvot. For these “insiders”, sensitivity to external perception is unnecessary, if not damaging.

Rabbi Sacks’s message is missed every day. Our purpose in serving God is to help all His creatures and to be accountable to all His children.

Our loss is as vast as the sea… where is our comfort to be found?

Rabbi Pollak is secondary school projects co-ordinator for Pajes



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