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Hanukkah’s unwanted miracles

I celebrate the small army's defeat of an empire – and then I recall how the Maccabees oppressed their less zealous fellow Jews

In Israel, the dreidel’s phrase shifts. One word changes from there to here. It reads “a great miracle happened here.” There creates distance. Here denotes an intimacy with the events of the past. I am wondering if this is a good thing. When it comes to miracles does being “here” become intoxicating?

I am back where it all happened. And I have returned to where it is again happening. No matter how many times I visit Israel, it is a privilege to be here. It is an unparalleled blessing to live in this age alongside the sovereign Jewish state of Israel.

And yet, I find myself worrying. Can the past overwhelm the present and begin to suffocate the future?

There is a strain of Jewish thought that was once minor that I fear is becoming major. You can hear it in the medieval thinker Yehuda Halevi who argued that there is something special in the Jewish soul and that when combined with the land of Israel results in prophecy. It flows through Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook the first chief rabbi of British-controlled Palestine who saw the holiness of the land above all else.

You hear their thinking more today. It is the result of what happens when the miracles of yesterday begin to be felt today. It has always existed but until recently it was a philosophical detour or an engaging intellectual debate. Now one no longer has to be familiar with ancient or esoteric texts to discover such paths. It can be heard among those who take olive groves from Arab farmers and build settlements where the prophet Amos walked or who have gained ministerial posts in Israel’s new ruling government. 

They argue that this land is our land and only our land and that there is little room for it to serve as home to anyone else. When Halevi made such arguments we did not have power or sovereignty. When Kook made such statements we were only beginning to return to this place and our numbers were too small to constitute the majority of people living here. Those who were enamored of these ideas argued about them in study halls and not in governmental bodies. Their philosophies were never in danger of becoming this week’s legislation.

The past is becoming too near to the present. It is here.

This week it is Hanukkah. We tell the story of the Maccabees and their victory but we do not tell how quickly they became corrupt or their rule became so ruthless. This is why the rabbis were cautious about how we tell Hanukkah’s tale. They understood that while power can protect (and thank God for its protections) it can also corrupt. Those who gain power, and yield power, might begin to only see their own worldview. Dissenters are ostracized. The powerful might persecute those who are not zealous enough as the Maccabees once did. They might denigrate those who are not sufficiently religious enough as a number of Netanyahu’s coalition partners now do.

I love this place. I will not let go of this land or this nation. It restores the Jewish soul. Today, I am unnerved about the policies this new government might herald. 

I may not wish to read about these matters in The New York Times but I must acknowledge these truths. Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Jewish nationalist party, is expected to become the new national security minister. He is a follower of the late Meir Kahane and offered praise for Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Arabs in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. Several years ago Ben Gvir argued that Israel’s Arab citizens are not loyal to the State of Israel and should therefore be expelled. He has since tempered his public statements and suggested that not all Arabs should be compelled to leave.

Other coalition partners have argued that the Israeli Knesset should be allowed to overrule the Supreme Court by a majority vote. Given the nature of parliamentary democracies, this majority is embedded in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the religious Zionist settler party, will gain power over the administration of the West Bank and thereby the construction of new Jewish settlements as well as the Palestinian towns within Israel’s jurisdiction. Avi Moaz who will be granted say over Israeli curricula is decidedly opposed to LGBTQ rights and all other expressions of Jewish life, most particularly Reform Judaism. In honor of this year’s Hanukkah this far-right leader said, “Anyone who tries to create a new so-called liberal religion is the darkness.”

Such leaders stand against pluralism. They offer little tolerance for the heavenly debates our tradition idealizes and the rabbis glorified. They elevate only their own thinking. Their own power is what they most lionize. The rule of law and the support of democratic institutions do not concern them. They strain to hear only their own voices.

Their numbers increase. Their voices grow louder. Israel’s far-right parties now make up 14 seats in its recently elected 120-member Knesset. Its ultra-Orthodox parties constitute 18. 

Back to Hanukkah and its miracles. A small army defeated a mighty empire! And it happened here. Then this initial success and the Maccabees’ victory turned ugly. The Maccabees oppressed their fellow Jews. They persecuted those not deemed sufficiently zealous. Their heirs fought off the Romans 250 years later, but then committed mass suicide at Masada.

Their passion ignited Hanukkah’s fires, but then their zealousness consumed them. We tell their stories. Yet they are no more.

Or are they?

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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