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Thought for the Day: Celebrating our identity

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Reflecting on the timeless lessons of Chanukah in his latest ‘Thought for the Day,’ the Chief Rabbi identifies our right –  as claimed so valiantly by the Maccabees – to construct our own identities, while highlighting the need to celebrate difference in others.

“Tonight, Jewish people will strive to bring light to the world. We will light a candle for the first night of Chanukah. Every subsequent night we will light one more candle up to a total of eight.

The lessons of Chanukah have timeless relevance, particularly to a society dominated by cultural conflict. The festival commemorates the rebellion of the Jews of ancient Israel some 2,200 years ago against an attempt to suppress their faith and long-held traditions.

“The lessons of Chanukah have timeless relevance”

The remains of the Greek Empire (roughly a century after Alexander the Great) defined itself not only according to its own beliefs and values, but also according to those it rejected. The Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes insisted on setting up an idol in the Temple in Jerusalem in order to crush the practice of Judaism. A band of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, took on the might of the Empire and, miraculously, won the precious right of self-determination.

The festival of Chanukah, with its candles, delicious food and presents raises serious questions of cultural identity. In the world of sport, for example, must my support for one team include antagonism towards another? More deeply, is the essence of my identity a need to be the best person I can be, or is it my opposition to the beliefs and values of others which defines who I am?

The 19th Century Scholar, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, put it this way:

“If I am I because I am I,
and you are you because you are you,
then I am I and you are you.
But, if I am I because you are you,
and you are you because I am I,
then I am not I and you are not you”.

The Maccabees claimed for us the opportunity to build our own identities and the right to not necessarily conform.

The Rabbi of Kotzk warns us that it’s counter-productive to define ourselves exclusively as different or contrary. After all, there are many fundamental values that we share in common as a society and with all humanity.

“It’s counter-productive to define ourselves exclusively as different or contrary”

There are undoubtedly elements of other cultures which can enrich us, and from which we can learn without betraying our own identity and history. We can all bring light to the world if our confidence in our own attitudes and beliefs enables us to appreciate what is best in others.

We need to learn not only who we are not, but also who we truly are, and what we are capable of becoming, while respecting all others and wishing them well.”