Togetherness and Diversity 5 May 2015

Rabbi Charles Wallach reflects on the holiday season and what diversity can teach us.Candles and hanukkah menorah with defocus background

Being semi retired my wife and I have the pleasure of escaping the grey and cold of Northern Europe for some of the time to spend a while with our daughter and family in Florida. In so doing we have recently experienced what the Americans call “the holidays”.

This effectively is a month which commences on Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November. Originally a date on which the Pilgrim Fathers (and mothers) gave thanks for the first crops in their new land, it has become the most secular of dates: a time when American families get together principally (or so it seems) to eat! It is, if you will, Christmas dinner a month early, with turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin the chief ingredients.

Of course there is a deeper sense to this too: for the eating, and the eating of these foods especially, show thankfulness, an idea which a colleague drew on by asking congregants at the Sabbath service the very next evening to state aloud what they were thankful for. In most instances they spoke of health and family, but in sunny Florida I thought of something else besides.

For Thanksgiving also starts the countdown to Christmas and New Year and along the highways and by-ways trees and bunting started appearing as if by magic. And in Southern Florida, as I would guess in other areas where Jews are present in some numbers, a Chanukiah or nine branched candelabrum also appeared. Not only that, but, as I have seen myself, when that festival is celebrated it is not only Jews who are present for the lighting. The festival celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of the tyrant Antiochus close to 2200 years ago, a rule which forbade Jewish worship and study. The three year war over, the Jews returned to the temple in Jerusalem, cleansed it and rededicated it with pure beaten olive oil poured and lit in the symbol of dedication, the Eternal Lamp.

Annually Jews remember this event and light the candelabrum, celebrating for eight days (as tradition has it) that originally the Maccabees found just a tiny bit of oil – seemingly just enough for one day’s burning – but that it lasted for eight days, long enough for fresh olives to be picked and crushed to sustain the lighting. The ninth candle is lit before the others as a lighter or taper for the dedicated ones.

Last year at one such ceremony, presided over by an orthodox Rabbi, I saw how the local mayor, who was not Jewish, was given the honour of lighting that light ahead of the rest. That act set my mind to wander and remember other occasions in which I have been present: the funeral of an archbishop where I, along with my Jewish and Muslim colleagues were present and where we stood in respectful silence while Christians took Communion; or where I participated in any number of interfaith services at which, when Christians genuflected before the cross, those who were not Christian merely stood still for a moment before proceeding.

In a career of forty years and in different countries, many moments have been memorable. But none have given me as much satisfaction as on one occasion when I was able to organize a seminar for 150 teachers at which representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i and Hindu communities shared with those teachers the essence of each of their traditions. It was an experience of sharing and mutual respect and laid the foundation for a deeper awareness amongst us all.

Life is not a blancmange when it comes to religion: we are different to be sure. But from within that diversity can come mutual awareness and respect and tolerance.


About Rabbi Charles Wallach

Rabbi Charles Wallach retired recently from a career in the rabbinate which stretched for forty years and saw him involved in his native South Africa, Britain, Australia, and Israel. He continues to reside in Brighton and Hove and now spends his time being supportive of communities which seek his help. Alongside his rabbinic and interfaith activity, he and his wife are "hands on" grandparents to nine grandchildren between London and Florida.

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