On Chanukah, Conserve Energy; Cooking Oil for Latkes, Maybe Not So Much

Who knew that Chanukah, the festival of lights, when Jews who make their own potato latkes and jelly donuts wind up with kitchen floors rimed in half an inch of cooking oil and the air in their homes heavy with oil vapors, is a call to conserve energy?

But, it is, at least if you choose to interpret it that way.

That, at any rate, is what I learned from doing research for a talk I gave last Saturday night at Temple Micah here in D.C. In reading the environmental interpretations of the Chanukah story sent to me by a friend in the congregation to help me prepare, I learned that an essential part of the wisdom of the Talmudic tradition is that it encourages Jews to reinterpret and find meaning in their ancient texts to suit their times. When Jews were farmers, their texts taught them how to live in nature; when they became wanderers, they taught them how to be itinerant; and so on when they became city dwellers. Now that our planet is in danger of reaching a boiling point, they teach us to preserve our planet and our precious natural resources.

One environmental interpretation of the Chanukah story has it that the tiny bit of oil that the Maccabees found in the desecrated temple lasted for eight days not because of the beneficence of their God who produced a miracle, but because the Maccabees put their minds to conserving what little they had and making it last as long as possible. And, according to at least one rabbi, it was this act of conservation that was in fact divine.

Parallels have also been drawn between the disparate power of the small army of Maccabees versus the much more numerous Syrians and those who seek now to protect our natural environment versus the oil lobby. The message of the Chanukah story then is not to passively wait to be saved from a formidable enemy – in our case, environmental devastation – but to get to work doing what we can to stave off disaster and produce a solution.

In another midrash – essentially one of innumerable interpretations of Jewish texts – it is said that the tiny amount of oil in the Temple was actually there because Jacob, given a jar of oil that had been passed down through the generations from God, had carefully preserved it, at great peril to himself and his family.

Through the centuries, this story has come to be interpreted as a call for humans to preserve what they have been given, particularly natural resources and the natural world. In the 20th century, it has been interpreted as an instruction to avoid consumerism and to reject the throw-away society.

Both of these interpretations of the Chanukah story teach us that we need to take action to preserve our planet.

We Americans consume about 1/5 of global oil used every year, and the world consumes a staggering 1,000 barrels a second!

The fuel economy standards that the Obama administration has set in motion are a start in cutting down our consumption. We as a society need to go further and invest in fuel-efficient transportation such as railways, subways, and buses, bikes and walking paths.

We can all choose to use public transportation whenever possible, to buy fuel efficient cars, ride-share, and encourage our families and friends to walk and bike.

To paraphrase Jonathan Neril, a leader of the Jewish environmental group Canfei Nesharim, “Kindling the Chanukah flames, we can shed new light on how we use energy….  And may our Chanukah lights inspire us toward responsible use of everything that comes into our possession.”