Hanukah – A Major Battleground for the Heart and Soul of the Jewish People

December 18, 2014

Last week I was invited to speak at Campbell Hall, a large private school in Studio City, Los Angeles, before two hundred and fifty 7th and 8th grade students about the story of Hanukah.

I began by saying that without the success of the Maccabean Revolt in 165 BCE, there would be no Judaism, no Christianity and no Islam today. I then reviewed the traditional story of Hanukah as it comes down to us through Jewish tradition, telling about the heroic battle of the Maccabean family against the Greeks, the Greek desecration of the Temple Mount, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of one, the lighting of the Hanukiah, latkes, and dreidls, and then I said, “Truth to tell, this isn’t the history of this holiday at all. Most of that is story-telling. The real history is far more interesting and important for us today, Jews and peoples of other faith traditions alike.” 

Then, as now, the Maccabean Revolt was a battle for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people. Applied more generally, its themes affirming self-identity and survival are applicable to every ethnicity, religion and nation. 

A few years ago Dr. Noam Zion, of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, spoke to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California on the theme: “The Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century as A Jewish Cultural Civil War between Zionists, Liberal American Judaism and Chabad.”

He offered a comprehensive view of Hanukah from its beginnings 2200 years ago, and how it is understood and celebrated today by Israelis, American liberal non-Hareidi Jews and Chabad Lubatich. Based on Hanukah’s history and the vast corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, Dr. Zion noted that three questions have been asked consistently through the ages:

‘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 Hanukah today?’

Jewish tradition considers Hanukah a “minor holyday,” but Hanukah occupies an important place in the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism and Chabad.

Before and after the establishment 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, they emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, and not God.

For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as Hanukah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukiah remains a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews living in a dominant Christian culture.

For Chabad, Hanukah embodies the essence of religious identity on the one hand, and the mission of Jews on the other. Each Hassid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who ventures 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 Chabad strives to place a Hanukiah in public places. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.

Dr. Zion concluded his talk 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 Hanukah – ‘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 it was a violent civil war between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests outside major urban centers in the land of Israel. The Maccabees won that war only because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together retook the Temple and dedicated 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 in the state of Israel.

The take-away? There is something of the zealot in each one of us, regardless of our Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid the sin 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 C.E., we need to prepare ourselves to be candles without knives, to bring the love of God and our love for the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take much courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, faith, and grit. The stakes are high – the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

Is it any wonder that Hanukah, 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?

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