The 20th century German theologian Martin Niemöller famously lamented the impact of his silence during the Nazi rise to power:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Countless thousands of other Germans were no doubt like Niemoller -they did not approve of the Nazi tyranny, but they nevertheless remained silent, and their silence provided implicit support. When good German people said nothing, their silence was heard as agreement with the status quo. When good Germans said nothing, their silence spoke for them.
This is precisely what the rabbis of the Talmud had in mind when they maintained “shtika k’hoda’a damei / Silence is tantamount to agreement” (B. Bava Metzia 37b). When we remain silent, our wordlessness speaks for us and, whether we like it or not, is regarded as implied consent.
Certainly all of us detest sinful behavior, decry the suffering of others, and condemn injustice. But when we decide not to say something in the face of sin, when we decide not to speak out in the presence of suffering, when we decide not to object to injustice, our silence speaks assent on our behalf. Only objection is not assumed, and must be spoken aloud by those courageous enough to rise up.
The Maccabees, who we celebrate on Hanukkah, set the standard. When King Antiochus IV put a statue of Zeus and a pagan altar in the Holy Temple, when his centurions ransacked the Temple treasury, when his decrees outlawed Judaism, and when Jews were turning away in droves from the faith of their fathers, Matityahu and his sons refused to remain silent. Of course, they knew that, as unknown priests in a backwater suburb of Jerusalem, no one really cared what they had to say. Chances were their protests and objections would fall on deaf ears. But they also knew where they stood and what they believed. Whether or not their uprising would be effective, they saw value in asserting, to paraphrase Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God.”They could not in good conscience remain silent in the presence of oppression and injustice, for doing so would imply their endorsement. Their small and insignificant protest grew into a movement that ultimately toppled Greek rule.
Our world is filled with at least as much injustice as the Maccabees saw in theirs. Our 24-hour TV and Internet news cycle inundates us with stories and images of war, terrorism, slavery, brutality, disease, hunger, injustice, and corruption. The challenge presented to us by Hanukkah is: upon learning of brokenness in the world, will you remain silent about it and thus implicitly consent to it, or will you, like the Maccabees, speak up, rise up, and make your voice heard that you envision a different kind of world? Sure, you may be ignored. But at least everyone will know where you stand. And, just maybe, your voice will echo into the hearts of others, igniting a movement, like that of the Maccabees, that can change the world.