Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Miller Beach, Indiana. He is the author or editor of ten books, most recently Eight Questions of Faith: Biblical Challenges that Guide and Ground Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society, 2015).
At this time of year, Jews around the world commemorate the ancient story of Chanukah—a tale of our forbears’ triumph on the battlefield and of the miracle of oil when the Temple was re-consecrated. For eight nights, we illumine our homes with light. We exchange gifts. We sing songs that celebrate our survival.
But our goal shouldn’t simply be to survive—it should be to thrive. We should go further and celebrate a different, deeper kind of miracle.
For years, the mantra of the Jewish establishment has been “Continuity, Continuity, Continuity.” But Jewish history proves that it has been discontinuity that has often led to the most profound, imaginative, successful and long-lasting outcomes for our faith and our community. It’s been the iconoclast impulse—the drive to rebel and take risks—that has served as the dynamic life force of Judaism.
Though a lot of contemporary Jewish leaders are worried about our future, our own past suggests we’ll be just fine. It’s not about numbers, and it never has been. Devotion, not distribution, has been always our hallmark as a people.
Two thousand years ago, in the small village of Yavneh, a group of rabbis boldly transformed the Temple-based religion they’d inherited into the Judaism we observe today. While a tiny minority of the general population, the Jews of Muslim Spain generated a Golden Age during which some of the greatest and most innovative Jewish thinkers, mystics and poets emerged and influenced medieval society for generations.
Size doesn’t matter. What matters is creativity, courage, and commitment. And while commitment has always been a problem (and is, arguably, even more of one today), pockets of dedicated Jews are actively engaged in new and creative approaches to Jewish life all across the country, from Jewish wilderness adventures to the recovery of lost but still potent rituals and practices.
So why is our leadership obsessed with data, with calculating how many potential Jewish babies are lost each year because of intermarriage or how many Jewish adults slip away as a result of assimilation? If we had a better grasp of our history—and the insight to reject the warped and inaccurate caricature of the Jewish experience as little more than one calamity after another—then we could refocus our time, energy and resources on what really matters: developing a dynamic and robust community.
What best defines us has always been qualitative rather than quantitative. Jews have encountered many obstacles, and we have surmounted them, primarily, through fidelity and innovation. To take a seasonal example, Judah Maccabi and his band of brothers—a minuscule guerrilla force compared to the Hellenist army—defeated their occupiers and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem because of their imaginative, unconventional tactics, as well as their faith and fierce determination.
That is the real miracle we should reflect on at this time of year, and a central message of our history—the fact that we can evolve as a religion and a people, not in spite of our challenges, but often because of them.