Annapolis and Chanukah

How fitting that just as the Annapolis Middle East summit ends, Chanukah begins.

That’s not because Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, and Annapolis will usher in an era of peace and light unto all nations. I’m writing this just as the summit is beginning, and I have no way of knowing how it will turn out — and no reason in the world to be even mildly optimistic.

But the timing makes sense because of what Chanukah teaches us about a particular genius of the Jews: We may not be perfect, but we do know how to focus on what’s important.

Take Chanukah. The holiday that begins this year at sundown on Dec. 4 celebrates many things: the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of King Antiochus IV in 165 B.C.E.; the “miracle of the oil,” when oil enough to burn for one day burned for eight; the triumph of Judaism’s spiritual values over Hellenistic civilization; the freedom over tyranny and oppression, when a small band of Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, defeated a king who banned Jewish religious practices and forced Greek religious symbols into the Second Temple.

But note how we mark the holiday: not with some reenactment of the battles of the brothers Maccabee, who led the rebellion of the few Jews against the many Greeks.

We light candles. We focus on the rededication of the Temple, the triumph of light — the symbol of learning and Torah — over darkness. Oil that lasted eight days invokes the miracle, against all odds, of our own survival.

There was good reason to focus on the oil, to, as it were, go toward the light. The Maccabee revolt — in which zealous Jews fought against more assimilated Jews — led to the Hasmonean dynasty, which eventually devolved into a series of brutal civil wars among Jews. Chanukah and latkes and dreidels are beautiful; the actual history, not so much.

So we changed the focus of Chanukah from history to story, from reality to metaphor.

That process is, to a great extent, what any peace process will demand of us.

Whatever will have happened — or didn’t — at the summit by the time this newspaper hits the streets, there can be no mistaking what is on the table: Israel’s control over the Golan Heights, the West Bank and over all of Jerusalem.

If Annapolis does what President Bush said on Monday it was designed to do — lead the parties in the Middle East conflict toward final status talks on these issues — and if the Palestinians and Arab states can deliver on their promises — two huge ifs — then once again Jews will be faced with the hard task of letting go of the actual and focusing on the spiritual.

For Jews especially, this painful process is evident in the debate over the future of Jerusalem. That debate flared up in these pages last month, when Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky broke with most of his colleagues and quite bravely suggested that the Israeli government is entitled to determine the future of land its soldiers fought and died on.

Prior to the summit, an ad hoc assembly of Jewish organizations, including the Orthodox Union, publicly asserted that no Israeli leadership had the right to negotiate away parts of Jerusalem. Their demand brought a quick rebuke from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who reminded them that Israel is a sovereign nation.

All this is prelude to one inescapable fact: If Annapolis is the beginning, and not the end, the physical and political status of Jerusalem is destined to change.

The worst-case scenario is the city splits and becomes divided and torn as it was prior to 1968. The best-case scenario is the adversaries find a way to share a beautiful speck of earth that means so much to so many. Either way, we need to be prepared for a time when all of Jerusalem is not all Israel’s.

And this is where Chanukah fits in.

The holiday that refocuses us from the actual to the metaphorical, from real blood to unreal oil, can remind us that we Jews are good at shuttling, when need be, from the concrete to the spiritual, from real estate to metaphor, from sovereign Jerusalem to a city made holy by compromise and coexistence between foes. Many of us are willing to let half of Jerusalem go so that the idea of Jerusalem can be saved. Many of us believe that to elevate land over the needs, values and spirit of the people who actually live there is the antithesis of holy.

“Religion as an institution, the Temple as an ultimate end, or, in other words, religion for religion’s sake, is idolatry,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote many years ago. “The fact is that evil is integral to religion, not only to secularism. Parochial saintliness may be an evasion of duty, an accommodation to selfishness.”

On Chanukah, we are tasked to find meaning in an ancient victory. Looked at one way, it led to a free enlightened people. Looked at another, it led to civil war. Our choice.

Happy Chanukah.