Thought for the Day - 27/11/2013 - Dr Ed Kessler

Good morning!

Later today, there will be some excitement in the Kessler family, as my daughter lights the first candle of Chanukah.

Known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah celebrates for eight successive nights, the victory of a small minority called the Maccabees, against an oppressive majority culture headed by the tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes, over 2000 years ago.

The story is told that when the Maccabees entered the Temple in Jerusalem there was only sufficient oil for lighting the menorah, a seven-branched candle holder, for one day. But, by a miracle, it lasted for 8 days until fresh oil could be produced.

One way to view Chanukah is in terms of a clash between the needs of a minority and the demands of a majority; between the particular and the universal. When Antiochus issued repressive edicts, Jews rebelled and, in so doing, served notice on all tyrants that there are certain rights, which a people will defend, whatever the cost. The Festival of Lights might be renamed the Festival of Rights.

The universal culture of Hellenism was not only open to all, but Antiochus required all to embrace it, at the expense of their own identity. The Maccabees rejected his demand to assimilate and their victory sent a signal of defiance to universalist forces who claim the right to abolish all distinctions in the name of “progress”.

Such forces tend to try to obliterate smaller cultures. As a result, I think, Jewish resistance to a universal ‘sameness’ has been a blessing for humanity and a continuing source of encouragement for religious pluralists of all types, not just Jews. History is littered with examples of universal cultures, which demanded that minority faiths and peoples disappear, whether into the abyss of nationalism or into other theologies.

In Cambridge, I teach students from different faiths and none; Jews, Christians and Muslims study each others' sacred texts side by side. The result is a gain in knowledge and in self-understanding because when two people look at each other, they see not only their faces but also the faces of other people and the face of humanity.

Diversity not only enlightens my students but it also lights up society.

More than once, Jews have been informed that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Chanukah is remembered, no one should surrender to the night. The proper response is not to curse the darkness, but to light a candle.

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