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The Sanctity of the Sacred and the Secular

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Chanukah represents the legacy of Jews retaining their Jewish identity in the face of a surrounding culture with differing values. This challenge is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago, and lies at the heart of how we may best prepare our children to be both proud Jews and solid citizens in the 21st century.

“What is, or should be, the relationship between Judaism and secular culture?” To this fundamental question of Jewish living the late great Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l devoted his life. In his words, this is “the question of Jewish modernity.”[1]

Rabbi Sacks reverently describes the immense inspiration he received from a personal visit he had with Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, when Rabbi Sacks discovered that the great Rabbi and accomplished philosopher “had no fears about the intellectual challenges posed by modern thought. [Rabbi Soloveitchik] had studied it widely and felt no ultimate conflict” between the world of the sacred and the world of the secular. [2]

Rabbi Sacks reflected: “A Judaism divorced from society will be a Judaism unable to influence society. It will live and thrive and flourish behind high walls within its own defensive space, but it will not speak to those who wrestle with the very real realities–poverty, disease, injustice, inequality and other assaults on human dignity–to which Torah was directed in the first place.” [3]

This engagement with the world is central to, and derives from, the Torah itself. Both Rashi and the Rambam, great medieval Torah sages, comment that the Jewish people are noticeably “wise and discerning” (Deuteronomy 4:6) because of their sophistication in science and math as they master and integrate the study of astronomy with the setting of the Jewish calendar and Jewish holidays. This is true in many areas of life and academic study; Torah and secular wisdom enhance and complement each other. None other than the Vilna Gaon explains the symbolism of the lights of the menorah as referring to the secular branches of wisdom surrounding the central branch of Torah wisdom.

Rav Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Israel, taught that the key to transmitting Judaism to the next generation in a modern–or even postmodern–world is to teach Jewish wisdom as yayin yashan b’kankan chadash-fine, aged, wine in a beautiful new vessel. The synthesis of the sacred and the secular reflects intellect informed by integrity that can help us truly be a positive light for the world.

The finest blend in education we can provide for our children teaches the best in academics in a nurturing and discerning Jewish environment.

This approach is designed to inspire our children with the confidence of Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik– to be a proud Jew, eager to engage with secular wisdom through a lens built upon the sacred.

Rabbi Dr. Lord Sacks wrote: “The challenge of our time is to go out to Jews with a Judaism that relates to the world–their world–with intellectual integrity, ethical passion and spiritual power, a Judaism neither intimidated by the world nor dismissive of it, a Judaism fully expressive of the broad horizons and high ideals of our heritage. There is no contradiction, not even a conflict, between contributing to humanity and affirming our distinctive identity. To the contrary: by being what only we are, we contribute to the world only what we can give.” [4]

May we take these lessons from Chanukah and feel empowered to excel in our modern world proudly as Jews.

Footnotes

[1] Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Torah Umadda: The Unwritten Chapter,” reprinted in Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2010), 204.

[2] Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks, A Judaism Engaged with the World (self pub., 2013), 11.

[3] Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Schocken Books, 2012), 227.

[4] Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks, A Judaism Engaged with the World, 24-25.