Today, Friday, is the second day of Hanukkah. In 1763, also on a Friday and the second day of this festival of latkes and lights, the oldest synagogue in America was dedicated: the Touro temple of Newport, R.I. One of the most memorable observances from the dedication ceremony was made by Yale’s President Ezra Stiles 1746, whose fascination with the Hebrew language led him to seek out Jewish friends and teachers. Stiles described the building as “the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America and splendidly illuminated [which] could not but raise in the mind a faint idea of the Majesty & Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture.” He noted that, “there may be Eighty Souls of Jews or 15 families now in Town.”
Why was Stiles at the dedication? Why did he record it in detail? Why the mention of so few Jews? Ezra Stiles had his own designs for Judaism and Hebrew, but for Jews, Hanukkah represents the survival of a people dedicated to monotheism in a world of paganism and Hellenism. The holiday also records the perseverance of a few facing an enemy of many and sanctifies the idea that religious expression must survive even when confronted with determined and ugly opposition. That opposition can even come from within, through disbelief.
Indeed, while Jews can be great skeptics, the Jewish people have never forgotten their God. As sons and daughters of Eli we must remember the special relationship Ezra Stiles had with Isaac Touro, Haim Carigal and the other rabbis with whom he even studied the mystical teachings of Kabbalah. The wise men studied Hebrew together. The language became a requirement at Yale and our shield was emblazoned with the biblical “Urim v’Tumim,” or “Light and Truth.”
As recently as yesterday, we witnessed the ultimate sacrifice of over 40 Israeli prison guards who gave their lives in uncontrollable forest fires that raged through the Jewish state. The heroes were “on their way to help in the rescue activities” at prisons that house some of the Middle East’s most nefarious terrorists. They died to help save the enemies of the only democracy in the Middle East. This ideal — of saving the lives of your enemies even at the cost of your own — is a beautiful variety of tolerance that Judaism promotes. It is precisely for this reason that a Jewish democracy in the Middle East needs to thrive.
The Jews of early America represented an intriguing minority that held steadfast beliefs amongst their Christian brethren. Stiles appreciated this modern dedication to an ancient faith. In the fast-moving, globalizing world of today, such tenacity remains an ideal that Yalies must value, just as they did during those stuffy old days when New England was the frontier of our country and culture. When Hannukah is understood as a symbol of religious freedom, Stiles attending shul on its first day makes perfect sense. For God country and Yale, as it would be later phrased — any God. Tolerance is Ezra Stiles’, Yale’s and the Jewish people’s legacy. Among the monotheistic faiths, Jews are, as Pope John Paul II once remarked, an “older brother.” We Jews must always remember who we are. By enduring among the nations we will remind the world to tolerate difference. At Yale and in America, leaders like President Stiles led the way.
Happy Hanakuh and happy holidays to all.