It’s Not (Your) Right

I enjoyed reading the in-depth articles by Rabbi Hanoch Teller that recently ran in these pages, which detailed the battles that have been fought in this country to secure the right to erect a menorah in public places. And while his writing was a pleasure to read, and the story was indeed a compelling one, I was left with a nagging feeling after I was through reading his report.
If I would be able to question those who went through the entire litigation process, worked so hard and sacrificed so much to win the right to display a menorah on government property, it would be as follows:

Is this really what we are supposed to be doing?

Is there value to Yidden (albeit in a country that has afforded us the greatest freedom to practice our religion that we have ever known throughout galus), when faced with a city or municipality that does not want to extend a courtesy to us as Jews, demanding that we get it because “it is our right”? Isn’t there something we are forgetting about who we are and what our function is as Jews living in exile in this medinah shel chessed?

I remember as a young bachur, attending a shmuess given by Harav Chaim Epstein, shlita (may he have a refuah sheleimah. Please daven for Harav Refoel Chaim Leib ben Sheina Ittah). Rav Chaim told about a conversation he had with a bachur who couldn’t understand why the Rosh Yeshivah didn’t approve of his following sports. At every point the bachur had an answer for what he was told. But when asked why he was a fan of a particular team from New York, the reply was, “Because I’m a New Yorker.”

“Ah Yeshivah bochur zuhl zuggen az ehr iz ah New Yorker?” thundered the Rosh Yeshivah. “Mihr zenen duch gefangen, b’shivyoh!” (“A yeshivah bachur can say that he self-identifies as a New Yorker? We are captives here!”)

All too often we forget that we are in galus and start demanding our “rights” as citizens of this country. But, as has been pointed out in these pages many times (although in different context), there is a real issue of hisgaarus ba’umos. Whatever can the justification be, when facing a governmental authority that rejected a Jewish request, to force them to bend to our will?

Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, (Emes L’Yaakov Vayechi and Beshalach) points out that the mistake Bnei Ephraim made in leaving Mitzrayim 30 years too early was that they felt that, as grandchildren of the viceroy, they were entitled to “rights” as Egyptian citizens. They thus felt that they could leave with might, and that they could regain their rights by force.

This is of particular relevance regarding the mitzvah of menorah. In chutz laAretz, the prevalent minhag is to light the menorah indoors. As far back as the Ohr Zarua, the question has been asked as to why we do this. The ideal place for lighting is, as the Gemara says (Shabbos 21b), at the entrance of the courtyard, or outside. Lighting inside is okay, says the Gemara, in times of danger. So why, then, do we not light outdoors? Surely we can all agree that in the United States of America, in the year 5775, there is no danger in lighting outside?

I once heard from a chashuve Yid that since the minhag in chutz laAretz was originally to light inside because of the inherent danger that public lighting brought with it, we should continue to light indoors, if only to remind us, and to show that we remember, that we are still in galus. Forgetting that galus is inherently dangerous is just as dangerous as any physical danger we can be in.

It seems foolish for frum Jews to take the lighting of a symbolic menorah and make it an occasion to stoke the hatred in the hearts of those who already have no love for us. What, exactly, of value is gained by forcing a non-Jewish person who — for whatever reason, be it his anti-Semitism or whatever else — doesn’t want a menorah on government property, to allow this display? And at what cost?

To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t seek redress through the court system when we are denied the ability to do what we need to as frum Jews. Fighting the Bloomberg regulation that seeks to hinder our ability to perform bris milah as is our mesorah is the proper thing to do, as is fighting to make sure frum people can wear yarmulkes. But those are things that hinder our ability to serve Hashem, unlike a passul menorah in a town square, which more or less amounts to a cultural display.

Askanim in the know have told me that when the discussions were held about whether to mount the current legal challenge to the metzitzah b’peh regulations, there were those who spoke strongly against the effort, saying it was a legal long shot, unnecessary, and would only serve to antagonize our opponents. (I wonder if they would put forth any of these considerations in cases like the menorah display issue, or listing Israel on passports of those born in Yerushalayim.) The Gedolim overruled these objections, and directed them to fight this fight regardless.

You see, it isn’t about what we can get or can’t get in court. It is about what is an important fight and what is not. An important fight is one that helps safeguard our religious practice — if it does, we cannot worry about whom it would antagonize. An unimportant fight is one that serves no such purpose; why, then, should we antagonize anyone?

Let us give credit to the people who have fought the legal and legislative battles that have allowed us to do mitzvos and learn Torah with minimal interference from outside forces. We should provide whatever assistance is needed for the success of those who are fighting the current iteration of these conflicts. But we shouldn’t make it harder for them by poisoning the well with battles that are of no value in fighting.