Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
Chanukah is upon us, and for eight nights I feel I will be lying when I recite the blessing “…asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik nayr shel Chanukah” — “Who sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.” We all know that God commanded no such ritual. The concept that Chanukah candles are a commandment was instituted by the rabbis. I’ve grown up hearing the unsatisfying explanation “Of course God didn’t command this, but it’s just as though He did since He did command us ‘And you shall do according to the word which they (the rabbis) shall tell you.’ (Deuteronomy 17:10).”
That sounds as ludicrous to me as crediting a batting coach for hitting a home run that is hit by the batter he coaches: “Of course Coach Smith didn’t hit the home run, but it’s just as though he did since he taught Joe Hardy how to hit, and Joe hit the home run.”
Since God commanded us to follow the words of the rabbis, instead of making everyone lie, for century after century, why couldn’t the blessing be composed truthfully? “ … Who sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to do according to the word of the rabbis who commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.” I believe the reason for the wording is that if the blessing were formulated more truthfully, people would be lax about kindling the menorah because they’d be reminded that the ritual was commanded by mortal men, not by God.
Assuming that is so, does it justify compelling Jews to be untrue about this eight nights every year?
Truth Seeking in Teaneck
You are technically right. According to our traditions, God did not directly command anyone to light Chanukah candles.
Our theology proposes, however, that God dictated the crux of the system of the Torah, and that human beings, many of them rabbis, are responsible for formulating and promulgating most of the detailed practices of Judaism throughout the ages.
According to our theology, two Torahs were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the written Torah and the oral Torah.
My teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, used to explain that the Sinai revelation contained a set of principles in the oral Torah, which were transmitted and interpreted over the ages into the detailed practices of rabbinic rituals.
Since rabbis believe they have the franchise from God to create rituals, it is not a lie to express this in the blessing formula. But the rabbinic role is not spelled out in our blessings.
You ask, What shall we do then with the inaccurate blessings that we have? Here is one way to rethink the blessings. I look at them not as theological claims of divine authorship. I see them as mindful and meditative framing mechanisms for our religious actions.
Any person can light a candle to create an illumination for the purely practical purpose of lighting a room in the darkness of night. But a meditative Jew kindles a menorah to conjure up a host of meanings — historical, mystical, and meditative — in the season of a special celebration.
A Chanukah menorah can be a cosmic symbol, a tree of life and light in the universe in the darkest period of the year. It also can be infused with historical meanings, recalling the victories of the forces of light (the Maccabees) over the forces of darkness (our enemies). And it does remind us of God’s miracles on behalf of our ancestors long ago.
Our blessings ought to be our mindful instruments to take us from the ordinary passage of time into illo tempore, that ideal instance where time becomes sacred, and where the lighting of lights take on transcendent meaning, uniting the past, present and future.
And accordingly, I apologize on behalf of all rabbis past, present and future, for not making our blessing formula more granular, more accurate, and more truthful.
Nevertheless, here is my advice. I urge you to be generous, to overlook the shortcuts that my colleagues have taken with their meditative formulas and mechanisms, and their limited expressions and methodologies. I suggest that as you recite the standard blessings, you embrace with vigor the vivid meanings of our wonderful, rich, and inspiring religion.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am a widow in my 60s. I am seeing a nice gentleman, also in his 60s.
For my entire life, I have observed the laws of family purity. Now that I am in my postmenopausal years, I am inquiring about the halachic perspective on engaging in sexual relations without being married.
Widow in Teaneck
Halachah is the word that rabbis use to describe rules they assembled to bestow meaning on life and to regulate society. Their idea is that there is a halachah, one set of rules for all Jews, whether young or old, passionate or passionless, romantic or pedantic. Looking more closely, though, you can see that there are nuances. Some rules don’t apply to young children and some apply to women or to men only. In some special instances, rules can be changed.
The rabbis say, as I pointed out in the previous question, that their system is special because, they say, it’s based on the Torah and grounded in a revelation that comes from God.
Within the system in Orthodox communities today, sex is permitted only between a husband and a wife. It is part of kiddushin, the sanctity of marriage. You imply in your question that you know this, and you respected religious rules for sexual practices in all their complexity for your whole life, including by observing the weighty system of menstrual laws and taboos.
Up until now, that is. Some things have changed for you. You are widowed. I speculate that you may have felt alone without your husband. And it is fair for me to assume that since you are 60 (by the way, the term for that is sexagenarian), you are more aware of what you want from your life. When we get older, we confront our mortality with greater urgency and clarity.
And in that context, you met a man. And you entered into a relationship with him. It’s probable that you are attracted, you are friends, and perhaps you feel something special again.
You say that you are considering whether to add sex to your relationship, without marrying your gentleman friend. Presumably both of you agree that you are interested in taking your friendship beyond the purely social, to add a sexual dimension.
You are not the only Orthodox couple today to confront this kind of question. The numbers of people who delay marriage has increased, divorce rates have risen, and the numbers of active, healthy widowed singles has grown. Average life expectancy has gone up, along with a higher quality of life and concomitant greater expectations for personal happiness. Nowadays, people in their eighties and beyond meet and date and find happiness together.
You write because you want me as a rabbi to give you at least permission, if not an outright blessing, to engage in sex outside of marriage.
I’m willing to offer you counsel only, but not a halachic ruling. And as such, I cannot print you a permit to engage in sex without getting married.
Here then is my advice. There comes a time in life, for some of us, when we have to take ownership of our own happiness. Your husband died, you were observant of rules and taboos for many years, and you are more mature now.
Should you or should you not engage in sex outside of marriage? I will agree that the physical and emotional aspects of sex, of touching, of warm embraces, can instantly make you feel alive and bring excitement to your life. But such activity may not last long in helping you find a deeper, lasting joy, or in alleviating your existential loneliness.
On the other hand, if you do add more sustained romance and meaningful sex to the mix, that can take a real friendship and turn it into a source of wonderful happiness, and perhaps even transform your life.
May I ask, why not marry the man? That way you won’t feel guilty about creating discord with your traditions or questions with your Orthodox kith and kin, or reasons to write in to a rabbi’s column.
If you cannot or will not marry, then please take this guidance. You are entitled to go right ahead and seek your joy. But I urge you to be sensible in conducting your relationship so that your peers, your community, and your families will not be made uncomfortable by your actions. You do not want to discomfit or embarrass anyone near or dear to you.
While this column’s advice does not carry with it the claim to authority that other rabbinic advisers may say comes from God, I trust that my discussion and counsel will convey some insights for you, based on sensitivity, experience, and common sense, and that you always will act accordingly with prudence.
Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books, including these ebooks available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi Zahavy” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.