Torah Sociology: Hanukkah and Social Justice

Modern secular culture, like Hellenism in the time of Hanukkah, threatens Torah family life. Torah parenting today is the truest form of political activism and social justice.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Focusing on the truth amidst the manipulation of election propaganda

In an election season, when words and ideas have been cheapened almost to the point of meaninglessness, the lessons of Hanukkah help us focus on the issues that are truly important. Hanukkah can help remind us that the physical and spiritual existence of the Jewish people depends foremost on our ability to develop and sustain two parent, multi-generational Torah based families amidst the dangers of secular modernity.

At election time, both the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' are out to manipulate our minds and our emotions. Since an early age, I intensely follow politics. I usually listen to the news four to five times a day. This involvement in history and politics helped propel me to become mitzvah observant and to make aliyah. But at election time I feel that I lose control of myself. I feel a certain helplessness before media manipulation. I so much want my team to win. Every news item can cause my mood to go up and down, and disturb my concentration when praying.

In order to cope, I listen to the news less, and try to remind myself about what the Torah teaches concerning the real, eternal truths of our life. I thus constantly repeat to myself, "Knesset majorities come and go, but what is really important is that the Jewish people build a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and even more important, that we succeed in building and sustaining a healthy, Torah family life."

The struggle to maintain Torah family life as a central theme of Hanukkah

The struggle to preserve the centrality of Jewish family life is actually one of the main themes of Hanukkah. The home and the family are the social framework chosen by our rabbis to celebrate and publicize the miracle of the victory of Jewish family culture over Hellenistic family culture. The mitzvah of lighting the menorah is incumbent on the individual Jew and his family (ish v-beito). In Ashkenazi families, all children, and the parent, individually light candles.  In Sephardic families, the father lights for the rest of the family.

The centrality of the family in the Hanukkah story is also indicated by  1)  the fact that Mattiyahu received courage to lead the rebellion and the military struggle because of the support of his sons, 2) one of the main causes of the Jewish uprising was the attempt of the Hellenistic ruler to violate Jewish family purity, 3) the self sacrificing example of total faith of  Hannah and her seven children, and 4) we celebrate Hanukkah at the same time that we read the Torah portion of how Jacob's family undergoes a path of repentance concerning the sale of Joseph and thus becomes the united, pure family that is the seed of the Jewish people and their redemption.

Secular modernity threatens the two-parent Torah family

The modern secular world threatens the two-parent Torah family as did Hellenistic culture in the times of the Maccabees. The secular world first lost faith in G-d, and now it has lost faith in the two-parent, multi-generational family. Thirty nine percent of Americans believe that the institution of marriage and family are becoming obsolete. People under thirty in the West are afraid to be entangled to be entangled in the ongoing commitments and obligations of family life. They are rapidly losing their self confidence that they can be successful parents. Marriage as an institution is 'guilty until proven innocent'. I have three secular brothers over the age of 59 who have been wonderful parents to a sum of eight children. But none of the eight children are yet married.

The Torah can exist only in stable, two-parent families in modern society

The Torah can exist in modern, liberal society only if it is dwelling in stable, two-parent, multi-generational families. Only such families can create the type of spiritual personality that will strive to make G-d an active partner in his life. A child will believe and trust in G-d only to the extent that he internalizes the certainty that his parents have faith in the goodness of his being. A child will want to do mitzvoth to the extent that he experiences the meaningfulness, creativity and liveliness of his parents observing mitzvoth. In the modern, secular age, the Shechinah dwells dwells in happy Torah homes more than it dwells in the synagogue and the beit midrash. This is the greatest truth of 21st century Jewish existence.

Parents as the true social justice activists of our times

So without hesitation, we, in the national religious community, can say that the great, politico-social activists of our time are the young parents who, exhausted after a day's work, get up in the middle of the night to change their baby's diapers. The truest fighters for social justice are those parents who forgo recreational enjoyment, defer career advancement and salary increase, in order to spend more hours at home with their children and to pay religious school tuition for a family of four or more children. Our young parents can be truly termed 'fighters for social justice'. This is because that the most effective way to build a healthy political society and socially just communities, is to build stable two-parent families. All the welfare payments and social programs in the world can never remedy the burdens and disabilities suffered by children who grow up in broken, or one parent homes.

The real Maccabean heroes of our times

We can truly say this Hanukkah that our multi-role strained young parents, and our singles struggling to find the right partner, are the true Maccabean heroes of our times. They are fighting the most important battle for Jewish spiritual survival in our time, the battle to sustain and maintain happy, two-parent Torah families amidst the antithetical values and institutions of liberal, secular society.