Monday, December 22, 2014

Putting a Menorah Where it Doesn’t Belong

I don’t know whose idea this was. But I don’t like it.

A makeshift shrine is up at the site where two New York City police officers were brutally murdered by 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Who then committed suicide. His stated motive (in social media) was revenge for the 2 black men killed by cops in the line of duty. In both cases the cops were exonerated by a grand jury. The black community saw this as an injustice to blacks who have yet to be treated equally in the eyes of the law.  But there has been universal condemnation by the black community of these murders. 

The shrine itself does not bother me. What does is a Menorah towering above all other items (flowers, candles etc.) placed by people who want to express their condolences.

First I want to say that it is entirely appropriate – and even a Kiddush HaShem to see Chasidic Jews standing side by side with community leaders - indicating one voice of condemnation of this heinous act.  (See the CNN video below.) To even suggest that there was a hint of justification for something like this would be insane. No one would say it. Nonetheless it was nice to see recognizably religious Jews being proactive about it.

But a Menorah? Why a Menorah? A Menorah has absolutely nothing to do with expressing condolneces. That it is now Chanukah is no reason to place a menorah at a shrine memorializing those 2 officers.

My guess is that those who put a Menorah there have a different agenda then simply offering condolence and support to the families of the victims. One which I see as counter-productive.  I believe it was to use as a symbol that is identifiably Jewish and seasonal to make sure that people recognize that Jews care. In other words it isn’t about caring so much as it is about making sure people know we care... and even more as a means of furthering their outreach. This is self serving. And I don’t like it.

It is one thing to promote Judaism by publicizing Chanukah the way Chabad Does. Their Menorahs can be found in the public square in just about every major city. They proclaim that Jews have the same right to display their religious items in public as Christians do. They often set them up in the same place one will find the city Christmas tree.  

By doing this they feel they are instilling pride in Jews who might feel a bit out of place this time of year. And in the process maybe even motivate them to investigate more about their own Judaism. I think they actually do accomplish this to a certain extent. Though they don’t like to use the word Kiruv, that really is their goal. They want to reach out to Jews and touch the inner spark of Judaism every Jew has no matter how removed they are from their religion.  

While I am conflicted about this I would not publicly protest.  I am conflicted because there is a downside. In some cases it has caused problems. Another objection I have to this is that I just don’t like insinuating ourselves into the public square at a time where Christians are all about their own holiday. Let them have their Christmas. We can have our Chanukah without insinuating ourselves into Christmas displays. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the gain is worth the pain. I’m not sure.  

Why does Chabad do it? It is well in line with their mission of outreach. But there is an additional reason for doing it. There is an element of lighting the Menorah that is called Persumei Nisa. We are supposed to publicize the miracle of Chanukah to the public. Lubavitchers I have spoken to about this explained that their very public displays of Menorahs is a form Pisumei Nisa. 

But I don’t think it is. The Shulcahn Aruch (Rama) tells us how to do that. In our cold and windy climates (as opposed to Israel) Halacha dictates that we light the Menorah inside our homes by a window during the time when people are in the streets. This is the way to observe Persumei Nisa in America today.  Not by placing giant electric Menorahs in the public square. And not by the electric Menorahs on top of cars. Putting up Menorahs where they may not be wanted can in some cases cause resentment as has happened in the past. So that even if we have a right to do so, it doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it.

But as I said, this is not something I would publicly protest since there are pros and cons and I’m not sure which side of the equation is the better choice.

But putting a Menorah in a shrine dedicated to two slain officers is by far not the place to do it. It doesn’t belong there. And this I do protest.

I should note that a placard that is in this particular shrine with a picture of a Menorah and an appropriate message of condolence does not bother me. That is perfectly fine. But an actual lit Menorah no message of condolence attached is not fine. (If there is a message it is not evident in any of the photographs I’ve seen. And even there is, an actual Menorah is still a bad idea. It does not belong there.)

I would normally urge those who put it there to remove it. But that may actually make things worse because it might seem that support is somehow being withdrawn. I only wish people would think before they do things like that.