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Hanukkah, Omicron and the Miracle of Science

For those who know the history of the Maccabees, you know the story of their struggle against the Seleucids 2,186 years ago is both long and complicated. Although we often reduce the Hanukkah narrative to the legend of the oil, the truth of the matter is that pitched battles lasted for years and in the end, the Jews were able to establish an independent kingdom. The history of Hanukkah should remind us that real life struggles tend to be protracted and complex just as the story of the miracle of Hanukkah should remind us that faith and forbearance are necessary to any kind of human victory or even survival.

Since December 2019, we have been living with the worldwide medical challenge of COVID-19. It has been a dark time for us, just as Seleucid oppression was a dark time for our ancestors. Moreover, just as our ancestors were saved by the miracle of a small vial of oil, we too have a path forward with little bottles of vaccines, which have proven effective in curbing the worst effects of the pandemic. However, our miracle is not directly heaven sent but a function of human scientific capacity. In our Tefillah prayer, which we read in its complete version on weekdays, we proclaim in Section 4, “Atah chonein l’adam dat um’lameid le-enosh binah,” which translates as “You [God] grace humans with knowledge and teach mortals understanding.” In other words, from a Jewish perspective, our human capacity to think, research, learn and develop science is, indeed, a divine gift. In my opinion, Judaism is more than pro-science, it views science as integral to human existence as part of the inherent design of the universe.

This pro-science view is nothing new in the Jewish community. For sure, a rabbi-doctor-scientist like Maimonides (1138-1204) immediately comes to mind. The anti-scientific streak in religion, although not entirely foreign to Judaism, is unquestionably an “outlier.” For us at KI, we can take great pride that one of former rabbis, Joseph Krauskopf (1858-1923) was the first rabbi to write a book in support of the theory of evolution. In 1887, Rabbi Krauskopf argued that evolution was the same as the “Supreme Governing Power” of existence and that “with this conception of the nature of God . . . every difference between science and religion disappears.” Tragically, 134 years later, religious fundamentalists continue to argue against the value of science as a basis for public policy and do so at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives and infinite suffering and unnecessary expense.

This Hanukkah, the second Hanukkah of the pandemic, we should recognize in the little bottles of vaccination fluid the miracle of modern science. From such a tiny amount of fluid, millions of lives are protected and just as we relight the Menorah, so, too we re-inoculate with the vaccine, once, twice, three times, maybe eight times, maybe more. It is the light, along with other best practices including masking and social distance, which gives us hope for a new normal in the future.

Now, during this holy season, we are facing a new variant, a new threat in the form of omicron. But we already have the “magic oil” to contain it even if we cannot completely eradicate it. Anti-vaxxers are doing a horrible disservice to society by putting all of us at risk at many different levels. They choose to live in darkness, refuse to recognize the blessings of science and endanger our lives and our way of life! Ironically, too many who claim faith, lack faith in the God given abilities given to us as a species.

As we conclude our Festival of Lights, let us remain resolute in our faith in the miracle of science, keep the lamp of reason lit and restore faith in the future for ourselves and all people.

Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.