Why Chanucah shines light on our differences

Chanucah may be one of the most popular festivals but it means different things to different people.

By Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, December 17, 2009
In Moscow, a menorah is lit to mark the start of Chanucah

In Moscow, a menorah is lit to mark the start of Chanucah

I cannot think of any festival that highlights the differences among Jews as much as Chanucah. For some it is the triumph of the religion over its enemies. To others it is the plucky victory of a small band of fighting men who stood up to an empire. And it can also be seen as yet another example of how often in Jewish history, what starts off as idealism descends into self- interest and corruption.

EH Carr, the English historian, said that before you study history, first you must study the historian. We all observe events and objects through our own prisms, and so it is with Chanucah.

The Talmud does not mention Judah Maccabee specifically. The Hebrew Books of the Maccabees were excluded from the biblical canon. The haftarah on Shabbat Chanucah repudiates force and emphasises spirit. Yet the rabbis do often refer to the Hasmonean era and its rabbinical leadership. Clearly, they were no admirers of strong men. The very name Maccabee, the Hammerer, which reminds one of Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, implies aggressive power. By the time of the Mishnah, Jewish life was threatened by militants and the rabbis were in no mind to glorify force or triumphalism.

The Al Hanisim prayer we say every day of Chanucah refers to Matityahu as the High Priest, but it was not until Simon, the youngest of the brothers, that a Hasmonean attained the status of High Priest and unchallenged political authority. The High Priesthood was overwhelmingly a political more than a religious position then, buyable for money or influence. Rival families would often bribe their way to the position. Sudden shifts of power in the Seleucid and Ptolemy empires meant the High Priesthood often changed overnight according to political loyalties.

The priests were the rich aristocrats who loved to consort with wealthy Greeks and Roman aristocrats, rather like current Jewish jetsetters, caring little for genuine Jewish values. They brought the theatres and the circuses into Jerusalem. They played in Greek games naked and went on island vacations with fashionable pagans. The High Priesthood was regarded as the representative of the Jewish people. Money and power mattered more than religion or ethics. As with Jewish life today, religious authorities may have spoken and acted as leaders of the community, yet rich laymen and politicians made decisions that were crucial for broader Jewish life. The rivalry between these two camps has always been a feature of Jewish life as much as the rivalries within each.

The priesthood and its Sadducee political wing were the conservatives resisting change. The more egalitarian, meritocratic rabbinic schools, the Pharisees, were more popular and progressive. Both contained elements similar to extreme political and religious variations in Judaism today. There were “splitters”. Some wanted compromise, accommodation and negotiation, while others wanted to fight till the bitter end.

All these rivalries played out in the Chanucah story. The celebrated military victories were not what they are claimed. The Syrian Greeks had far more important matters to deal with on their borders. Only second-line generals and reserve forces were sent to deal with it. The Antiochus dynasty was constantly fighting off challenges, pretenders and ambitious generals within its own circles. What was going on in Jerusalem was a distraction, an irritation that could wait and in the end could be and was dealt with by negotiation and alliances.

Those Jews who love gambling could indulge their passion

In the only major pitched battle against a serious Syrian army, Judah lost his life. This is not to belittle the achievements but they were not as decisive or as overwhelming as we like to think. War in itself did not achieve what it set out to and a Syrian garrison remained in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple, we looked back nostalgically to the period of the kings and the priests, even if they rarely produced leadership of any value. Most were self-serving incompetents. Still, in exile, dislocated and disempowered, it was natural to yearn for a mythological time when we were in control of our own destiny and dream of a king David coming to our rescue, or a Golem arising to rid us of our enemies, or a Judah Maccabee to keep the flame alight and light eight candles to record a miracle of God as well as man.

When secular Zionism emerged with a political agenda of proactive intervention, pitching the few against the many, the good against the evil, Chanucah should be the festival above all others that would unite the rival wings of the Jewish people. That was why Israel’s Jewish Olympic games were called the Maccabiah, despite the irony that the initial fighters for Jewish freedom from Greek domination were so strongly opposed to Greek athletic values.

The sad divisions that marked the emergence of Israel between the religious, ultra-religious and secular, have resulted in each side turning Chanucah into a celebration of its own character. Those Jews who love gambling could indulge their passion without reserve. Those for whom Judaism was culinary could gorge themselves on doughnuts. Those whose life was dominated by materialism could give presents for eight days instead of one. Those who saw the miracle of spiritual survival could indulge in the ritual details of lighting the correct oil for the right amount at the exact time and with the appropriate prayers.

We Jews continue to celebrate Chanucah in our own different images.

Rabbi Rosen blogs on www.jeremyrosen.com

Last updated: 11:03am, December 17 2009