December 11, 2011
Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War
Last week I was privileged to hear a presentation on Hanukkah by Noam Zion, a fellow of and the senior educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who led 40 Rabbis of the Southern California Board of Rabbis in a superb 2-hour conversation entitled:
“Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War
Noam offered us a comprehensive view of Hanukkah from its beginnings (© 165 B.C.E.) through history and how it is understood and celebrated today by Israelis, American liberal non-Hareidim Jews and Habad. Based on Hanukkah’s tendentious history and the vast corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, Noam noted three questions that are consistently asked: ‘Who are the children of light and darkness?’ ‘Who are our people’s earliest heroes and what made them heroic?’ ‘What relevance can we find in Hanukkah today?’
Though religiously a “minor holyday” (Hanukkah is not biblically based, nor do the restrictions apply that are associated with Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Succot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur), Hanukkah occupies a place in each of the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism and Habad.
For example, before and after the establishment of the State of Israel the Maccabees served as a potent symbol for “Political Zionism” for those laboring to create a modern Jewish state. The early Zionists rejected God’s role in bringing about the miracle of Jewish victory during Hasmonean times. Rather, such leaders as Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Jacob Klatzkin, and A.D. Gordon emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, not God.
For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukkah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the American value of religious freedom as affirmed by the first Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as the holiday of Hanukkah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukkiah remains a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews and their children living in a dominant Christian culture.
For Habad, Hanukkah embodies the essence of religious identity on the one hand, and symbolizes the mission of Jews on the other. Each Hassid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who goes out into the public square and kindles the nearly extinguished flame of individual Jewish souls, one soul at a time (per Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber). This is why Habad strives to place a Hanukkiah in public places and why Hassidim offer to help Jews don t’filin. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.
Noam concluded his shiur (lesson) by noting that the cultural war being played out in contemporary Jewish life is based in the different responses to the central and historic question that has always given context to Hanukkah – ‘Which Jews are destroying Jewish life and threatening Judaism itself?’
The Maccabean war was not a war between the Jews and the Greeks, but rather was a violent civil war sparked by intense enmity between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests living outside major urban centers (the High Priest in Jerusalem had already been co-opted by Hellenization). The Maccabees won the war because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their own Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together they took the Temple and rededicated it. That historic struggle has a parallel today in a raging cultural civil war for the heart and soul of the Jewish people and for the nature of Judaism itself.
The take-away? There is something of the zealot in every one of us, regardless of our respective Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid our past sins of sinat chinam (baseless hatred between one Jew and another that the Talmud teaches was the cause of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE) we need to prepare our own constituencies to be candles without knives and to bring the love of God and the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take much courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, and faith. The stakes, however, are very high - the very future of Israel and the Jewish people.
Is it any wonder that Hanukkah, though defined by Judaism as a “minor holiday,” is, in truth, a major battle-ground for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people?
During Hanukkah, which begins on Tuesday evening, December 20 (25 Kislev) I will reflect more on these themes in this blog.