Hanukkah and the Normalization of Violence

As Hanukkah approaches, we are reminded that we are not the first generation of Jews who have had to balance the desire for peace with the necessity of force.  We gather around hanukiot,  kindling light against the many kinds of darkness that threaten our sense of safety, security and shelter.

By Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, November 27, 2018

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Following the recent tragic assault in Pittsburgh, American Jews have been grappling with how best to secure and, if necessary, defend our synagogue communities. Synagogues have been understandably ambivalent about requiring armed protection at a house of worship and/or adding layers of security to our sacred spaces where welcoming is the norm. 

As Hanukkah approaches, we are reminded that we are not the first generation of Jews who have had to balance the desire for peace with the necessity of force.  We gather around hanukiot,  kindling light against the many kinds of darkness that threaten our sense of safety, security and shelter. This season in particular, we may find new insights in the stories we tell and the songs we sing about the Maccabees’ militant defense of the Jews of Judea who wished to practice their religion on their own terms two millennia ago.  

For all its pragmatism, Jewish tradition is of course also idealistic. What would our Jewish spiritual tradition be without its love of peace and its yearning for the fruits of peace? Almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Yossi HaGalili taught: "How praiseworthy is peace? Even in time of war, Jewish law requires that one initiate discussions of peace.” (Leviticus Rabbah, Tzav, 9) But while peace is always preferable, there is an acknowledgement that resorting to force can sometimes prevent greater harm from occurring or evil from triumphing.  Rabbi Michael Broyde teaches: “Judaism accepted that it is best not to use violence, and [that] violence was the last resort, but when no other action would suffice, violence was morally acceptable and typically mandatory.”

However necessary the use of force may be in specific circumstances, Jewish tradition also cautions us to be wary of how force, once unleashed, can take on a life of its own. As the Talmudic rabbis taught about the night of the tenth plague in Egypt, once the Destroyer is let loose, it does not discriminate between good and evil, between those who are guilty and those who are innocent. Put differently, as violence gains a foothold in society, there is always a risk that it will become normalized.

Jews are no strangers to reckoning with the consequences of conflict and the costs of violence. But a long-unspoken cost is now being recognized as part of the steep price we pay when violent social conflict becomes the norm. This toll is the often corresponding rise in domestic violence/intimate partner abuse. Our dedication to the value of strong and safe families means we must be alert to it.

A growing body of research stimulated by the implementation in many countries of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (recently passed with bi-partisan support in the US Congress as the Women, Peace, and Security Act) points toward this connection between violent social conflict and domestic violence. But it is taken one step further in a working paper authored by Italo A. Gutierrez and Jose V. Gallegos, published by the Rand Corporation as “The Effect of Civil Conflict on Domestic Violence: The Case of Peru.” These researchers found that exposure to societal violence correlated with an increase in domestic violence as societal violence became normalized. They also found that women who were most exposed to conflict and the broad use of force to solve problems in society were more likely to justify violence by men against women and were more likely to stay in violent relationships.

The Maccabees resorted to force, fought fiercely, and won. Yet despite our celebration of the choices they made, the symbol of Hanukkah is light, not a sword. As Jews, we do not surrender our notion of a redeemed world in which violence has no place, even while going about the arduous business of living in this one. 


 Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum is a member of Jewish Women International’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic and Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community