Commentary: Let’s Stop Counting
At this time of year, when the sun sinks faster and the nights grow longer and colder, Jews around the world commemorate, through narrative and ritual, the ancient story of Hanukka—a tale of our forebears’ triumph on the battlefield and of the miracle of oil when the Temple was reconsecrated. 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 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 community. It has been the iconoclast impulse that has served as the dynamic life force of Judaism.
Though a lot of jewish leaders are worried about our future, our past suggests we will be just fine. It’s not about numbers, and it never was. In recent years, the heads of two of our major movements debated about which one could claim more affiliated members. In the face of one billion Catholics and one billion Muslims around the globe, do several thousand Jews really make much of a difference?
Two thousand years ago, in the small village of Yavneh, a group of rabbis boldly transformed their Temple-based religion 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. In the 16th century, a handful of kabbalists in the Galilee reshaped the Sabbath liturgy into the form that is familiar to us now, whether we live in Fargo or Fez.
Size doesn’t matter. What matters is creativity and commitment. And while commitment has always been a problem (and remains so today), pockets of dedicated Jews are engaged in new, creative approaches to Jewish life, 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? Have our images of the past made us that insecure?
If we had a better grasp of Jewish history—and the insight to reject the warped 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 quality not quantity. Jews have encountered a great many obstacles, and we have surmounted them, primarily, through fidelity and innovation. Judah Maccabi and his band of brothers—a miniscule guerilla force compared to the Hellenistic army—defeated their Syrian occupiers and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem because of their unconventional tactics as well as their faith and fierce determination. What we celebrate at Hanukka shouldn’t just be a military victory, but the triumph of Jewish will.
That is the real miracle we should reflect on at this time of year, and a central message of our history—that we can evolve as a religion and a people, not in spite of our challenges, but often because of them.
Niles Elliot Goldstein is founding rabbi of The New Shul in New York. His most recent book is Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith (St. Martin’s Press).