Twenty years ago Noam Zion, Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman in Jerusalem, in a talk to a group of rabbis in Los Angeles argued that Hanukah is a battleground for the heart and soul of Judaism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people. What follows are the highlights of his thoughts.
From its beginnings (© 165 B.C.E.) to the present, Hanukah has represented very different things for the founders of the State of Israel, American liberal non-Haredim Jews, and Chabad. Based on Hanukah’s tendentious history and the corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, three questions have been asked consistently: Who are the children of light and darkness? Who are our people’s earliest heroes and what made them heroic? And what relevance can we find in Hanukah today?
Though religiously a “minor holyday” (Hanukah is not biblically based, nor do the restrictions apply that are associated with Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Succot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur), Hanukah occupies a place in each of the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism, and Chabad.
Before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Maccabees were 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 the period of the Hasmoneans. Rather, Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Jacob Klatzkin, and A.D. Gordon all emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, not God.
For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the American value of religious freedom as affirmed by the first Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as the holiday of Hanukah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukiah is a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews living in a dominant Christian culture.
For Chabad, Hanukah reveals the essence of religious identity and defines the mission of Jews. Each Chasid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who goes 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 and why Chasidim offer to help Jews don t’filin. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.
The cultural war being played out in contemporary Jewish life is based in the 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. Rather, it was a violent civil war sparked by enmity between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests living outside major urban centers (the High Priest in Jerusalem had already been co-opted by Hellenization). The Maccabees won the war because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their own Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together took the Temple and rededicated 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.
The take-away for us today? There is something of the zealot in each of us, regardless of our respective Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid our past sins 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 our own constituencies to be candles without knives, to bring the love of God and the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, and faith. The stakes are very high – the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Is it any wonder that Hanukah, though defined by Judaism as a “minor holiday,” is a major battle-ground for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people?