Guest Blogger

The White House, Hanukkah, & the Spirit to Prevail

Filed By Guest Blogger | December 22, 2009 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: Hanukkah, Hanukkah miracle, Michelle Obama, President Obama, spirit to prevail, White House, White House reception

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Rabbi Kleinbaum is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world's largest synagogue for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

RSK.jpgIt was awe-inspiring to be in the Obama White House for its first Hanukkah celebration.  A building built by African slaves is now inhabited by an African-American President!  I still can't get over that reality.  Yes, Virginia, the President and First Lady served latkes (mountains and mountains of them), but most of all they showed deep respect for and sensitivity to the Jewish community. I couldn't help but imagine how different the guest list for this party must have been from that of the last administration's. (Full Disclosure: I didn't get invited to any of the Bush parties.)

I loved roaming the Blue Room, the Green Room, and the Red Room.  I loved the "sustainable" Christmas Trees that fill the White House (trees that are rooted in planters and will be re-planted after the season sans decorations).

In the Obama White House last week, the miracle of Hanukkah was palpable: a small vial of oil, only enough for one day, lasted for eight.  It's a message of hope in the midst of despair. Go ahead, light the menorah, go ahead take a step even if you're not sure there is enough energy, time, money, compassion, support to see your work through to the end! President and Mrs. Obama embody that "Yes we can" miracle.

Alas, the story of Hanukkah has another "miracle" as well.

The other "miracle" was the military victory of a small band of religious zealots who, against all odds, defeated the world power of the Greek-Syrian Empire.  Alas, I worry that the "miracle" of the military victory teaches us something quite disturbing. Hanukkah reminds us of the power of zealots who fight a guerrilla war.

There is a serious threat in our world today and President Obama is right to name it.  Alas, the story of Hanukkah does not help us imagine a happy ending to his policy of fighting this fight with military might.  I say this sadly.

I expect that President Obama will soon lift the "Don't ask don't tell" policy as the military struggles to fill the ranks of its all-volunteer force.  Ending that discriminatory policy is long overdue, but brings little joy when we consider what our armed forces will be doing for years and years to come.

The rabbis were not comfortable celebrating the military victory of Hanukkah.  That's why they focused on the miracle of the oil instead. And that's why they prescribed as the haftarah, the reading from the prophets, for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, these words from Zachariah with which President Obama closed his remarks tonight: "Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we prevail."

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You are so right, Rabbi, and I'm glad to hear that President Obama seems to understand that as well. I'm also glad that our LGBT spiritual leaders, like you, are being recognized by our government as significant. I'm grateful for the encouragement and support I have received from your words and actions over the years.