The Power of Illumination
December 2021 Keeping Connected
This week, as we have been celebrating Chanukah, I have been thinking a lot about the symbolism of light and the power of illumination. The Torah opens with God’s first act of creation. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’” God needed the light to separate light from darkness. God observed that this primordial light, this first act of illumination, was good. Later, in the Talmud, there is a debate about how to light the chanukiah. It is written in Tractate Shabbat 21b:5-7, “Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, one kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, one kindles eight lights. The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: We increase holiness, we do not decrease.”
Beit Hillel’s insight feels both profound and simple at the same time. As we go into the darkest days of winter, it seems obvious that we would want to increase illumination and to diminish some of the oppressive darkness of the shortest days of the year. Perhaps this is why winter festivals of light are so universal across religious and cultural traditions. We feel moved to bring the light of hope to our spirits when the days are dark and cold. Rabbi Larry Milder understands that the act of kindling light has more significant moral and spiritual overtones as well. He writes, “Adding one candle each night represents the deeds that we must undertake to restore healing to our world. In matters of sanctity, we do not diminish our efforts. We increase our commitment, we redouble our efforts, we do all that we can to keep ourselves and others safe, and to work toward a brighter day.”
Light has a power to heal that is profound, especially when it is cast on experiences and behaviors that some would want to remain in the shadows. For example, those of us who live in Massachusetts are deeply attuned to the needs of members of the Catholic Church who were victims of clerical abuse, to have their stories be brought to light. Only then could there be a pursuit of justice and perhaps for some, reconciliation, and healing. All too sadly we know that the Catholic Church is not alone in having hidden these types of abuses and we know from the #metoo movement of the last several years, that all institutions need to take greater responsibility.
It is with the belief that we all benefit from learning about and from these stories, I want to share with you that earlier this month, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s graduate school and seminary, and the school from which I was ordained in 1989, shared with the public a troubling but crucial independent report. It recounts credible allegations of sexual abuse, discrimination, intolerance, misconduct, harassment, favoritism, disrespect and a culture of protection of abusers, that lasted for over 50 years. Although I read the report earlier in the month and although many other congregations have already shared it with their members through letters and/or sermons, it has taken me some time to process this news and my own personal feelings. I do believe that Jewish communities need to be forthright about these experiences and that we should not delude ourselves into thinking that our faith is immune to abuses of power. In commenting on this news, Rabbi Brian Stoller has said, paraphrasing Genesis 28:16, “Darkness was in that place, and I did not know it.” You can read both the letter from HUC-JIR here and the full report below.
In the report some of my own professors are named as well as a past presidents of HUC-JIR. He was the individual who placed his hands on my head to ordain me almost 33 years ago. His signature is prominent on my smicha, rabbinic ordination certificate, which hangs in my office. Also on my smicha are the signatures of professors who refused to sign the certificates of students who were members of the LGBTQ community. Although many of the individuals named are deceased, some of them are not. Their scholarship, music and prestige has continued to be found until very recently in the halls of the seminary, at rabbinic conventions and the sanctuaries of synagogues like our own. The report is long and profoundly disturbing, yet the lawyers who compiled the report acknowledge that there are also many more people and situations that are not named.
This report is a step towards justice and change. HUC-JIR’s willingness to name these transgressions publicly casts light on this shameful past. In doing so, we can begin to move forward with the hope of having a more equitable and safer environment for all students and faculty. This is one step towards helping our entire movement engage in a reckoning; we must not be afraid to face the truth, we can affirm all that has been much good even as we name dysfunction. These steps are painful but essential. Just as increasing the light on each night of Chanukah indicates a commitment to increase holiness into a darkened place, these investigations and the transparency of the reports, can make us proud as movement. Although this truth-telling may feel as though we are being drawn into a dark place, I truly believe that there cannot be healing for any of our institutions or movement until we bravely shed light onto our past. I am grateful for HUC-JIR’s current administration for pursuing this process and I know that a similar effort is being made by the other arms of the Reform Movement. By pursuing these truths, our movement is indicating a sense of integrity and commitment to healing and teshuvah. Finally, one of my colleagues reminded us that although it is important to reveal the truths of the past, we must also realize that in the present there are continued abuses and systemic violations of others and that we ourselves may carry within ourselves some of these prejudices. I hope that as we continue to add light to each day of Chanukah, we will all feel moved to do more to confront sexism, racism and homophobia in our Jewish institutions and everywhere.
Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry