Ultimately, it's the savagery and the ferocity that get us into trouble, not the presence or the absence of a particular belief. In many ways, that is what the American electorate declared last month in its sweeping rejection not of Republicans per se, but of virtually all politicians who polarized the populace with the radical nature of their views, whether from the right or the left. They rejected those candidates who spoke as if they were filled with fire from heaven, bringing a burning judgment down upon those who disagreed with them about anything from the war in Iraq, to gay marriage, to tax cuts. But voters also rejected those starry-eyed candidates who never seemed to take a stand on anything. Americans seemed genuinely ready for something new--something that reflected genuine commitment without the extremism.
But the test of that conclusion is only coming upon us now. It's easy to reject extremism on any given day in November, but sustaining a politics of hope and possibility rather than one of divide and conquer is the work of December through October. And with the convergence of all these holidays, we find an important moment in which to test the ability of our respective traditions to contribute to the building of a better future for our nation--a future in which these traditions can build hope and possibility for all people, rather than providing fodder for further divisiveness and more conquests.
As a rabbi and as an American who is committed to seeing this happen, I must re-engage an ancient question from my own tradition as I go to light this year's Hanukkah candles: Are we kindling these lamps in order to celebrate the fire or the light? As in the November elections, how we choose to respond to that ancient question will shape the future of both our nation and our planet.
Since the time of Jesus and even before, Jews have debated the meaning of Hanukkah, and the debate always returns to the question of fire and light. Is this a time to celebrate our ability to make fire, to defeat our enemies and overcome evil? After all, there really are things worth fighting for in our world, and lately many of them feel under attack. Or is this holiday more about our ability to demonstrate how even a little bit of light can chase away a great deal of darkness? How can seemingly small events--a jar of oil in the Jerusalem Temple, an unknown baby in a Bethlehem manger, or a young man in the deserts between Mecca and Medina--generate the hope and light beyond that which any army ever could? It's really up to us.
Yet, this issue of fire versus light continues to shape so many issues in contemporary political and religious life. The question is, can we appreciate the contribution of each though we may only be comfortable with one? If the results of this past November are to be taken seriously, that is the path to success. And like Jewish tradition, we in this country need to keep alive the wisdom of both the fire and the light, combining them in new ways to maximize the contribution of each without getting seduced by the sufficiency of either.
During this week of sacred celebrations, we should each take a moment to ask one simple question of as many people as we can, reminding them that there is no way to get the answer wrong. Ask them: Do they find themselves more concerned about the future of the world in which they live, or more excited about the opportunities the future holds for them as individuals and as Americans?
If, by the end of the week, we consider what new appreciation we have gained from those with whom we sharply disagree, and how our own convictions have either deepened or changed based on what we heard, we will have accomplished much in terms of using particular traditions for the common good. We will also have better prepared ourselves to hold our newly-elected officials to fresh standards of non-dogmatic politics that serve the widest possible audience, while maintaining the greatest possible integrity. That's what all of our traditions, both religious and political, have always promised. Perhaps this week we can begin to prove them right.