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The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began at sunset Dec. 8 and will end at sunset Sunday. At Temple Shomer Emunim in Sylvania, staff and members were preparing through the week in the kitchen and social hall for a family dinner Friday night after the Shabbat service. On Wednesday, Rabbi Samuel Weinstein, who has been the Temple's senior rabbi for 20 years, said, “You can smell the potato pancakes in the air already.”
Hanukkah presents “a wonderful opportunity for our kids to participate in services,” Rabbi Weinstein said, “and our fourth grade every year does a special Hanukkah presentation, and then we follow it, of course, with a big, festive dinner replete with potato pancakes. Why potato pancakes? The oil represents the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days” to light a menorah in Jerusalem's Temple, according to the story in the Book of Maccabees depicting a fight for Jews to regain the Temple.
It celebrates a miracle, but “I see Hanukkah as a minor holiday in terms of ritual, because essentially we’re simply lighting the candelabra," Rabbi Weinstein said. “But I see it as a major holiday in terms of its implications. I think Hanukkah really, if you look at it historically, was based on one of the first wars fought for religious independence. People often think about political boundaries, but Hanukkah is also about religious boundaries, and it's about respecting religious boundaries. There’s a tremendous and very potent message there that speaks about tolerance, and it speaks about mutual understanding, and I think sometimes in the midst of the lighting of the large menorahs and playing with dreidels and having potato latkes [pancakes], that message is really missed.”
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Rabbi Weinstein, a Reform rabbi, spoke about religious differences even among Jews. He said the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism can be seen by their thoughts on the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). “I would say that Orthodox Judaism as a primary tenet believes that the Torah was given by God on Mount Sinai, and therefore it’s really incumbent to observe all of the mitzvoth, all of the commandments, of Judaism. Reform Judaism believes that the Torah in many respects is a human document, our gift to God, as it were, and because of that the Torah represents our ideals, but also it represents a certain time in history. The Torah does not govern us, but it does guide us, whereas for traditional Judaism I would say that the Torah governs. We would look at certain aspects of the Torah and say, ‘That represents a sociological reality of a time many thousands of years ago,’ but the world has changed just a little bit since then.”
In speaking of change, Rabbi Weinstein referred to Israel. “I think that in many respects when you look at Israel and, of course, what they have to balance, security needs, etc. I think Israel has done a very good job of trying to accommodate everybody. If you go to Haifa, you see the Baha'i faith has its headquarters in Israel. You walk through the Old City of Jerusalem, you see [Christian] Orthodox priests dressed in their garb, and that's fully accepted and welcomed. I know that it's not always been the case on the other side. Israel is always called apartheid, for example. What sort of apartheid? You have Arabs and Jews living in the same places, going to university together, patients in the hospital together. There's Arab doctors, there's Jewish doctors. Israel is not apartheid. I think a lot of the dialogue has really been corrupted, and as long as the dialogue is corrupted, it makes it very difficult for anybody to see the complexity of the situation and certain essential truths. So much of this has been politicized, and tragically, because it doesn't allow us to really get to the core of the matter in terms of trying to solve any problems. People are coming in with their own preconceived notions about truth, and what we sometimes see as truth is not truth at all.”
That ties back to Hanukkah. “Hanukkah is about tolerance,” the rabbi said. “It’s about respect. It’s about appreciating uniqueness. I think there's an eternal lesson there, that we have to fight for our freedoms, we have to respect others, it’s all implicit and explicit in the holiday of Hanukkah.”
Alongside the menorah and religious freedom is the play of dreidels and pancake dinners, and the tradition in some families of giving a different gift each day for eight days. “Some families are very lavish with gifts, other people give very simple gifts,” Rabbi Weinstein said.
The rabbi showed a favorite gift he received from a member of the congregation. “I haven’t opened it yet, but sometimes on a Friday night I will do a PowerPoint presentation, and I have to run to the computer to flip, to do every slide, so what a thoughtful gift: A Logitech Wireless Presenter R400. It has a laser in it for me to point to the screen, and also it can control the slides. I will hook it up to my computer and see if we can make it work.”
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