Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: What does Jewish tradition teach us about zealotry?

As we approach Chanukah, the Chief Rabbi talks about the unique nature of light on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day

“The interesting thing about light, which is essential for the human eye to function, is that both a complete lack of it and an over-abundance of it, can leave us utterly helpless…” You can hear the audio and read the full transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT:

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” But the interesting thing about light, which is essential for the human eye to function, is that both a complete lack of it and an over-abundance of it, can leave us utterly helpless.

After a sudden power failure at night, we desperately seek out a candle, a torch or a mobile phone to see us through until the daylight returns. And we are all familiar with the pain of going from a darkened room into the rays of broad sunlight.

‘The interesting thing about light, which is essential for the human eye to function, is that both a complete lack of it and an over-abundance of it, can leave us utterly helpless’

It was this thought that struck me while reflecting on the astonishing and historic year that 2016 has been, in anticipation of the Jewish festival of light, Chanukah, which begins this weekend.

Many will remember this year as a time during which the political discourse was dominated by binary choices which were made to seem like complete darkness or brilliant light by all sides – when we know that in reality, the world is far more complicated than that.

On Chanukah, when kindling the lights of the Menorah, we contemplate the power of a lone flame, which even by itself, can gently illuminate the darkest of spaces.

Jewish tradition warns against unnecessary zealotry, even in our relentless pursuit of spirituality. King Solomon wrote, “Do not be overly righteous or too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”

‘On Chanukah, when kindling the lights of the Menorah, we contemplate the power of a lone flame, which even by itself, can gently illuminate the darkest of spaces’

2016 has taught me that we cannot chase away the darkness with artificial, blinding light. Rather, each one of us has a responsibility to avoid excess darkness and excess light, both of which have negative and destructive consequences. We must seek out the humble light of wisdom and of caring for others; the light that brings us together as families, as communities and as a society. It is by coming together, harnessing what we have in common, rather than polarising, which will enable us to build a stronger and more resilient future for us all.

This year, the first day of Chanukah and Christmas Day will coincide for only the third time in the last hundred years. After a year in which we have been shaken by the harsh impact of polarisation, as Jewish and Christian communities celebrate their different traditions alongside each other, let us find a renewed appreciation for the strength and power of the common ground, where love, mutual respect and harmony are king.