November 17, 2018

Author sheds light on the menorah

A Star of David may appear on the flag of Israel, but a much older symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that can be seen among the looted treasures of the Jerusalem Temple as depicted in the marble bas-relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The moment when cultural historian and Talmudist Steven Fine came face to face with this ancient artifact — he was in Italy studying the arch in 2012 — is described in Fine’s magisterial book from Harvard University Press, “The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel.” 

“I could not take my eyes off the menorah,” Fine recalls. “Here I was, so close that I could touch it — but should I? I didn’t.” Indeed, he was awe-struck to find himself within arm’s reach of one of the earliest depictions of what he describes as not only “the greatest of all Jewish symbols,” but also “the longest continuously used religious symbol in Western culture,” more ancient than the cross or the crescent. 

Fine, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, has spent “considerable time with images that today are called ‘symbols,’ ” and the whole point of his book is to excavate and explain the meanings that are evoked by the menorah over its long history. Indeed, he acknowledges that The New York Times once referred to him as “the Jewish Robert Langdon,” a reference to the “symbolist” who is the fictional hero of “The Da Vinci Code,” but he insists that his own work is based on “the close study of texts and artifacts in a real attempt to let these disparate forms ‘speak’ to each other.”

As a working symbolist, Fine displays a savvy approach to his study of the menorah. “It is an excellent branding image on the order of the Christian cross, the Muslim crescent, and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s.” He points out that the Talmud actually prohibits the making of a menorah — “an assertion of the unique holiness of the lost Jerusalem Temple and its appurtenances” — and some pious Jews crafted only the Chanukah version with eight branches and a shamus

Starting in the 19th century, however, the seven-branched menorah was displayed in Reform and “neo-Orthodox” synagogues. By the 20th century, the menorah transcended its origins as a ritual object and “became both a symbol for Jewish emancipation … liberalizing Judaism, and Jewish nationalism — usually (but not always) Zionism — and sometimes all of these at the same time.”

The superb color photographs in Fine’s book show us artifacts on which the menorah is depicted that are far older than the Arch of Titus, which dates back to the first century of the Common Era, and he points out the various passages in the Tanakh where the menorah is richly described. But he is always careful to caution us against the dangers of imagination. “The distance from scripture to first-century Jerusalem was a long one,” he writes. “[T]he menorah is among the best-known artifacts of Jewish antiquity, a fact that in no way instills confidence that we know much about it.” 

Among the modern examples that Fine shows us are the so-called “Warner Murals,” which were donated by the moguls at Warner Bros. Studios to Rabbi Edgar Magnin’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple in 1929. Here, yet again, the symbolism of the menorah was put to use in service of “the intense visuality and theatricality of Hollywood in the creation of his [Magnin’s] ‘set’ for Judaism — and for himself.” Two gas-light menorahs, “modeled on the Arch of Titus,” flanked the ark. “It must have been a deeply moving sight,” he writes, “a messianic statement of Israel renewed that was fitting of the Jewish Los Angeles of the era.”

Appropriately enough for the Festival of Lights, Fine pauses to point out that the candelabra used for Chanukah were also called menorahs in modern Hebrew (as were all biblical lampstands, oil lamps and even electric lighting fixtures) until 1897, when Hemda Ben-Yehuda, wife of the great Hebraist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, prevailed on her husband to coin an entirely new word for the eight-branched version. Only then did the word “chanukiyah” come into use.

The menorah may be missing from the flag of Israel, but it appears prominently on the official state seal. With his characteristic acuity, Fine points out that the seal is “to some degree retro for the late 1940s,” when it was adopted, “which gives this imagery a sense of being older than it is — a plus in an old-new land.” 

Significantly, the vote in the Knesset to adopt the new seal was unanimous, a rarity in Israeli politics then and now. Yet the backstory of how the seal and the flag were designed, which Fine narrates in fascinating detail, serves as yet another pointed reminder of the various powerful meanings that can be extracted from a symbol, even one as a familiar as the menorah. n

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.