Wrestling with Chanukah: The deep, the difficult and the mystical
As Chanukah was approaching this year, I sat down with two Conservative rabbis — Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles — to discuss the challenges and complexities of one of Judaism's most celebrated stories and holidays. Here they answer questions about the Maccabees' violent dark side, reveal Chanukah's mythical origins in the Garden of Eden and why its absence from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) does nothing to diminish its significance.
Jewish Journal: Give me your pithy TV pitch of the Chanukah story.
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld: There is just no reason to oppress or put down or demean or persecute someone else for their religious beliefs and actions. Of all the yuck that has happened to the Jewish people, Chanukah was first time the persecution of them was because of religious ideals as opposed to territorial expansion, or the need to enslave for personal gain. [Chanukah] was about the Hellenists feeling a great affront at monotheistic temple worship and wanting to replace it with something more in line with their understanding of the way the world worked. My spin on the concept of pirsumei nissah, the notion of publicizing the miracle, is that Judaism learned early on and needs to still proclaim that others’ beliefs and rituals should be sacrosanct.
That was longer than a TV pitch.
Rabbi Ari Lucas: My TV pitch is about bringing light to the darkest days of the year. Chanukah celebrates the universal and the particular: the light that I have to shine is special because it’s mine, but through my celebration and appreciation of the light that is uniquely mine, I come to appreciate light in general.
JJ: When Chanukah is taught, we generally focus on the triumph of the small over the mighty, on religious freedom, the miracle of the oil and re-dedicating the temple. But we really shy away from talking about the Jew-on-Jew violence that occurs in the story — the wholesale slaughter that has been described in some literature as a kind of civil war. Why don’t we talk about that more?
AL: This is a core question about religious commemoration in general and Chanukah in particular: What is the story we tell? And the way you tailor the story depends on who your audience is. You might give a different explanation of Chanukah to a five-year-old than a ten-year-old, or to a non-Jewish neighbor. The way we commemorate historical events through religious celebration [focuses on] particular elements that we want to elevate and draw out. So I guess you could say there’s some element of censorship. For me, as a religious leader, my question is: Can we not whitewash the complexities and nuances of a historically difficult moment in Jewish history, and still light our Chanukah candles and celebrate?
AK: What you’re asking about Chanukah could be asked about all of our holidays and all of our sacred cows. Can you be an ardent Zionist and engage in post Zionist critique at same time? Can you observe Pesach with gusto and still know intellectually that there are serious questions about how it happened and whether it happened? Purim is an even more egregious example of this than Chanukah. The narrative we tell about Purim is so incredibly tailored and whitewashed: You’ve got the hero and heroine of the Purim story named after Babylonian gods; you’ve got a Jewish community living in exile after King Cyrus issued an edict that allowed them to go back to Caanan. So why didn’t they go back? Why are we elevating this community when it was really an assimilated Jewish community that was rejecting Israel? But when it comes to the 14th of Adar, I do want my children to dress up as Mordechai. And the same is true for Chanukah. In religious life, we have to be able to distinguish between what’s history and story, but embrace story. Because history doesn’t always fill you up with meaning, it fills you up with facts. If we’re always de-compartmentalizing we’ll end up with something very brittle and ultimately meaningless.
JJ: You could also argue that grappling with these complications create richness and complexity. Are we doing enough of that wrestling?
AK: I am someone who will err on the side of being more careful. I’m choosing to live a Judaism that’s intellectually honest. I will now pepper a biblical critical approach to a text in the middle of a Rashi class with adults in a way that I don’t think I once was comfortable with, because I want them to be able to grapple with both sides. But I also want them to love the Torah.
JJ: Knowing what we know about the way the Maccabees achieved victory, how does that complicate our understanding of their heroism?
AL: The heroism of the Maccabees is not what I’m celebrating on Chanukah…
AL: I’m celebrating God’s salvation of the Jewish people in a time of great danger — maybe salvation from themselves, from internal strife, maybe from the external threat of the Greeks — but when I say the blessings over the candles, I don’t say ‘Thank God for the Maccabees.’ I say, ‘Praised are you Lord Our God who commanded us to light these candles and who performed miracles.’
AK: She’asah nissim, not she’asu nissim – singular. The maker of the miracles in the religious language is ‘God,’ not ‘them.’
AL: There’s the line from Psalm 46, al tiv'tehu vindivim, b'ven adam she'ein lo t'shuah — do not put your faith in human beings, they will disappoint you. Human beings are mortal, and being mortal means both finality and being flawed. So inevitably human leaders are going to let us down, they’re going to disappoint us. And so the question really is: Does that destroy your faith? Are you going to say ‘Forget it?’ Or if after that disappointment, you’re going to hang in there, and see the opportunity for repair.
JJ: As religious Jews, how do we celebrate and idealize our cultural myths and stories while also acknowledging cultural flaws and failures?
AK: That’s part of the modern liberal Jewish experience, with gravity pulling you in two different directions. And you can’t average them together; you actually have to live with two different tropes in your mind.
JJ: The Chanukah motto is Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might, not by power but by my spirit…” expressly shifting the focus from the militant to the mystical. Why do the rabbis end up spiritualizing what was really a military victory? Was that a way of reinforcing the idea that human beings cannot be counted upon, and that God is ultimately responsible for history?
AL: When the rabbis in the Talmud ask ‘What is Chanukah,’ they tell the story of the oil. But in the Al Hanissim prayer, which makes its way into the siddur — and I think of the siddur as the ultimate arbiter of Jewish thinking — speaks very candidly about the military victory. And therein you have this dialectic: We’re celebrating a military victory, but we’re also reminding ourselves of our core vision of a messianic time. It’s realism mixed with idealism: the realism is that military strength and power is sometimes necessary in order to achieve our political and physical salvation; and yet, the ultimate spiritual salvation will only be through means of peace.
AK: But do you think that [the rabbis’] oil-izing and miracle-izing a military victory was ultimately a message of peace triumphing? Or do you think that’s our modernistic wish that that is what they were doing?
AL: I think there’s a long-standing tradition of taking examples of violence and saying, ‘We recognize that this was important and a necessary evil, but it’s an evil.’ [The rabbis] are grappling with that; they’re not comfortable with the idea that violence was how we achieved salvation.
JJ: Are you both comfortable with violence being the means for victory?
AK: Am I comfortable with the fact that [the Maccabees] had to win a war to save the Temple? Yes. Totally. I’m also comfortable with the fact that we had to win a war in 1948 to get Israel. I can sermonize about John Lennon’s world where neither border nor ideology exist, and maybe that’s originally what humanity could have achieved, but in the world that we have inherited, there are certain things that require force, that require strength, that require principle. And I’m totally comfortable with the fact that had that military victory not taken place, our little experiment [called Judaism] would have been over.
JJ: Is the messianic vision we hope for – the world redeemed — one in which violence does not exist? Is that the ultimate mark of spiritual evolution?
AK: I’m not convinced that Judaism can Torah itself out of our own instincts to be violent. I don’t think of Judaism or even Torah as a perfect salve to the human instinct to battle. In fact I think that the rabbis trying to figure out what happens before Cain kills Abel is a recognition, deep within humanity, that, if you take my flower pot, or my wife, or anything else that I own, I might have to kill you.
JJ: None of the books of Maccabees are in the Tanach – they’re all apocryphal. How does this affect the way we regard the holiday?
AL: I was raised thinking that the only reason Jews put such an emphasis on Chanukah is because we were trying to give our children something as a response to Christmas. In my adult life, I’ve come to appreciate that both [Chanukah and Christmas] have light as a central symbol, and there’s this question about shining the light that is uniquely ours into the public sphere. There’s a story in the Talmud about Adam, the first man, who saw that the days were getting shorter and shorter, and so he’s getting nervous. What is going to happen? Are the days going to keep getting shorter and shorter such that there is no daylight? So he’s trying to figure out the patterns of nature, and then around Chanukah time, he sees that the sun is getting higher in sky. And so the first man celebrated a festival for eight days, offering thanks to God that the universe wasn’t destroyed. So maybe there’s some pre-Chanukah/Christmas elemental aspect [to the holiday], something about the experience of nature during this time of year.
AK: There was a pagan holiday, called Saturnalia or something, celebrating the return of the sun at end of the winter solstice. I think the rabbis were aware of this, and they wanted to make Chanukah [appear] even earlier, [to reinforce the idea that] Chanukah was really born in the Garden of Eden, and so would predate any sort of pagan [ritual].
JJ: Addressing the theme of religious pluralism, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that Chanukah “challenges modern Jews to review their own easy acceptance of cosmopolitanism and sophisticated culture as superior to the sentiment and tribal feeling of being Jews.” In light of the recent Pew poll results, this strikes me as a relevant dilemma for American Jews, because it highlights the conflict between universalist strivings and particular identities. Is it possible to live deeply in these two worlds at once?
AK: Clearly, yes.
AL: I’m doing my best…
AK: We are paragons of that! My image for this is a tiny piece of Yellowstone National Park [in southern Montana]. When I was a 20-year-old, I went to this place where there is a natural pool of water that brings glacially cold water from way-up-there down, and it pools in the same spot that thermal, hotter-than-you-can-imagine-water is coming up from below. And they pool in this natural eddy and they don’t average; it doesn’t create tepid water. It creates a very bizarre and stimulating experience where literally pieces of your skin are very, very hot and pieces are icy cold. And it’s exhilarating. I claim, without apology, to live in exhilarating modern times that excite me, and titillate me, and make me so proud to live in a world where my intellect does not have to be dampened to be alive. At the same time, there’s an equal part of my soul that relishes being a modern representative of an ancient tradition. And I find my modern, pretty traditional, conservative, observant American life to be extremes coexisting, that could easily flatten each other out, but don’t.
AL: Hellenism sought to flatten difference, [and] to make everyone according to the Greek paradigm. That is not what I believe pluralism is. I don’t believe that pluralism is this hands-off, everyone-does-what-they-want and every opinion is valid, in order to respect everybody [paradigm]. Because then we get to this place of ‘I cant even be critical of morally abhorrent positions because everybody does what they believe is right and who am I to judge?’ The Jewish people have always been the people who say that difference is something that you need to respect. I went to Jewish day school through 12th grade, and then college was this amazing, diverse exchange of ideas and culture. And I found that initially my instinct was to try and be like everybody else, just fit in, and minimize the parts of myself that were Jewish and differentiated me. Ultimately I found that I was more respected and more interesting to people, and that I had something to contribute, when I was more fully and authentically Jewish.
JJ: Greenberg calls this the Jewish resistance to homogenization.
AL: Yes! That’s why I love Greenberg. He’s awesome. We resist and we celebrate difference and that should also attune us to celebrating difference when we encounter it.
JJ: But, I wonder, when encountering an ultimate crisis of loyalties, as we see in the Chanukah story, what is required for someone to choose Jewish survival? Greenberg writes that in order for Judaism to persist, there must be “a primordial will to Jewishness first, or to Israel’s survival first,” which conflicts with the impulse to align with universal humankind.
AK: Are you asking me, ‘Do I think the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans were right to name the abject Hellenizers as being dangerous to future of the Jewish people?’ Yes, they were. Because if you don’t have stalwarts who are willing to pound the pavement, your ‘ism’ [as in Judaism] will die. I do think there are people who will quietly choose to opt out, and do the modern version of ‘Hellenize’ and one of my goals as a rabbi and as a Jew is to make sure there’s an address for people who are not making that choice, without demonizing those who do. I have members of my own family who I don’t think of as evil people at all, but our Torah never captured them. It’s not their fault. My job is not to give them a scarlet letter as Destroyers Of The Jewish People but to make sure there’s a robust and interesting and vibrant home for those who still want to play for this team.
When I was younger, early on in my career, I cared more about numbers — numbers of people who came to shul on Friday night, people who came to this or that program — but I can’t win that game. I can’t have my professional life be contingent on what decision a family makes on a Thursday night at 8pm, whether to come to my class or not. I can’t have my sense of value be dependent on that, nor can I have my career be dependent on that. I have to have my life and my career be dependent on values that are important to me and how I’m living them, teaching them, expressing them, mirroring them, modeling them, and knowing that they matter in the world and that hopefully they’ll matter to other people as well.
AL: That’s why I admire my senior rabbi. That question has been imposed on us from the outside far too often, and sometimes in ugly ways from the inside: Are you in or out? And I think what I love about what [R’ Kligfeld is] saying is ‘We love our people and we’re going to invest in the things we believe are right. And if it’s home for you, come join us; and if it’s not, maybe one day it will be; and even if it never is, we’re still going to keep the hearth fire burning.
JJ: How do you teach your children about Chanukah?
AL: Having not done it yet, but anticipating it [for the first time this year], I think the wisdom of our tradition is to teach the child wherever that child is. And at a very young age, it is about what we do. We light candles, and we sing songs. And that’s it. And eventually that child will ask ‘Why are we lighting these candles?’ In some way, that’s what all of ritual is: it begs questions.
JJ: Why do we celebrate the Chanukah oil miracle for eight nights when the first night wasn’t a miracle?
AK: That first night, the miracle was not being demoralized. It was knowing that there was no chance of the oil lasting and still lighting. When a person is grievously depressed and doesn’t jump off a bridge but goes and seeks help, “That is a miracle too…” [he sings, from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’]. I have no guarantee that my great, great grandchildren will observe Shabbes but I’m going to light candles this week. That [is] my sense of what it means to be truly courageous.