On Chanukah, Sexual Violence, and the Courage to Go Public

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We are entering the darkest time of the year. Over the course of the eight nights of Chanukah, the world grows darker – the moon wanes until it disappears from the black sky and then just the thinnest crescent of moon will appear. As the darkness around us grows, we literally bring more and more light into the darkness as we increase the number of candles we light each of the eight nights.

This practice, in and of itself, is beautiful. It certainly helps with the winter blues and resonates with all the spiritual and metaphoric meanings we can think of, both in the act of entering the “darkness” (read – pain, suffering, injustice, cruelty) and being carriers of “light” (read – inextinguishable hope, goodness, joy, human resilience, sacred spark).

This year, I am meeting the practices and meanings of Chanukah shaped by the national conversation about sexual violence that has developed in the wake of allegations against Jian Ghomeshi. The darkness of abuse and rape, violence and sexism, is a vast and swimming darkness in our society. According to Diana Russell, 93% of women will experience some form of abuse or harassment in their lifetimes and less than 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to the police (NOW Magazine Nov. 13, 2014). It is shocking a set of violations that are so common are also so covered over in silence, fear, and shame. There are two details related to the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles that I am finding powerfully significant in this context.

First, Chanukah is a holyday of seeing. There is not a lot of action that accompanies Chanukah. Whatever parties you may go to, gift-buying mall frenzies you may endure, or large-scale latke frying you may endeavor, the central act of Chanukah is lighting the candles each night and looking at them. We don’t use the light for any purpose. We just stand together and look. The light shining in the darkness is meant to stir memory and awareness. According to the Talmudic telling, when the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, finding it desecrated with idols and its sacred objects destroyed, they found a small cruz of oil that should have only lasted for a day, but burned for eight – long enough to prepare the pure oil needed to light the Temple menorah and rededicate the Temple for its holy communal purpose. According to the Book of Maccabees, predating the Talmud, we are celebrating the impossible victory of a small group of Maccabees refusing forced assimilation into Hellenistic culture and vanquishing the powerful Assyrian Greek army.

The words we say when we light the candles incorporate both the military and the spiritual aspects of Chanukah. We say, “We light these candles for the miracles and wonders, the battles and saving acts.” Chanukah is a narrative of resistance, human strength, and being warriors against a power that sought to erase and silence us. The light is a reminder of real struggle that toppled cultural and religious chauvinism and oppression. Chanukah is a narrative of un-quenchable light, the light that refuses to accept the desecration of what is holy and whole. The ability to see light in the darkness of sexual violence requires both aspects as well: the strength of resistance, and the light of restoration and wholeness that ultimately no one is capable of desecrating.

Secondly, the Talmud calls on us to put our chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) in windows facing the street so all who pass by can see the candles burning. Before there was social media, this was an ideal way of publicizing our experience. We put a sign, a marker of resilient light, on the threshold between public and private space. It serves as an act of self-revelation, a way to be visible. And it serves as a way to have others bear witness. The personal is made political as our private struggle and triumph are brought into the larger space we share.

In the Chanukah story and in our own experience of Chanukah, this self-revelation and public witnessing are about revealing Jewish identity and being witnessed as Jews amid all the Christmas lights. In terms of the darkness of sexual violence, those who have been victimized are finding the support, safety, and love to make themselves, their pain, and their attackers visible. There has been a flood of calls to police and crisis hotlines, and much conversation on blogs and Facebook, as more and more victims of assault have been coming forward to talk about what happened to them, even if they have been silent for years. The courage of one person bolsters the courage of another as these lights emerge out of the darkness of fear and shame.

And as a society, we are witnessing and talking in a way we haven’t talked in several decades. Conversations have been growing on university campuses, in workplaces, in the media, and in religious institutions. This is a time to listen and witness, as we figure out what needs to change in order for victimized people to feel able to speak out publicly. This is a time to talk about the root causes and dynamics of sexism, homophobia, trans oppression, and violence as we figure out what needs to change next in order to end sexual violence. This is a time to shake our awareness and move our society forward in response.

May this be a year of bringing strong and clear light into even the darkest places.

Posted in Rabbi's Message