I normally think of Hanukah as a fairly minor, but completely harmless holiday. A good opportunity to bring family together. Fun for the kids. Lighting candles is nice. (And, of course, Hanukkah is a good distraction from all the attention given to Christmas in much of the world.)
But when your five-year old comes home around Hanukah singing a song asking The Holy One to build us another Beit HaMikdash here in Jerusalem — an event that would likely lead to World War III — you start to wonder whether you need to get more serious about delving into the theology behind the holiday. And about what exactly they’re teaching about it in your kid’s kindergarten.
I admit this song is kind of a catchy number and that kids can be super cute singing it (you can hear a bit here). Now that I’ve heard it, I even find myself singing some of it out loud. And it certainly doesn’t feel like it hurts anything to sing lines like:
בנה בנה בנה
בנה לנו בית המקדש
ותאיר ירושלים באור חדש
Build, build, build
Build for us Beit HaMikdash
And illuminate Jerusalem with a New Light
But that’s the very problem isn’t it. It feels harmless, empty of anything like a call to unthinkable violence. But how does that really fit with teaching kids that this song is about celebrating Hanukah, a holiday that is intimately connected to the ancient Temple, the בית מקדש/Beit HaMikdash?
As I write this today, I sit just a bit over two miles from where the Temple once stood (and where both the Kotel, the Western Wall, and the Al-Aqsa mosque are, today). But there has not been a Jewish Temple there since the Romans destroyed the second one in 70 CE. Sure we yearn on some level for the Temple’s restoration (there’s a reason why some call the Kotel the Wailing Wall). But that’s just not the same thing as trying to make it actually happen in our time, a time in which there are some 2 billion Muslims in the world who hold the site holy themselves.
And connecting the dream of a Third Temple with the Hanukah story starts to make it sound, especially to young ears I think, that we’re actually, with military force, trying to make it happen. After all, Hanukah marks a time when Jews rose up in force amid the Maccabean Revolt to defend their land and their temple against the Greeks in power.
Significantly, the ancient Rabbis did not see fit to preserve much of anything about the story of the Maccabean Revolt. In the Talmud, all it really says is that the Greeks entered the Temple and defiled the oil there. Only enough oil for one day remained. But then came the miracle — the miracle that allowed the light to last for eight days.
That’s hardly everything the Talmud says about Hanukah. It goes on at great length about the proper ways to observe it, including how many candles to light and when. But it has very little interest in glorifying the Maccabees and their military prowess.
I think that’s kind of how I learned about Hanukah as a kid. It was about the ritual. The candle-lighting, the dreidels, the Hanukah gelt chocolates, the latkes. And, of course, since we were Americans, the eight days of presents. There was only very little talk about the Maccabees.
Or, I guess, if there was some glorification of the Maccabees, none of that really stuck much in my brain or my heart.
I think it is very much the same with Thanksgiving. Surely in school I was taught the ridiculous and not really true story of kind-hearted American Indians helping kindly, hungry pilgrim colonists through a hard winter and then feasting with them. I guess the story was meant to communicate that nothing really bad happened between the Native Americans and the immigrants from Europe.
But even in the 60s and 70s of my childhood, we already knew well that not any of that was really true, and that Native Americans had suffered greatly at the hands of white people.
I’m sure there were — and still are today — Thanksgiving tables where the elders celebrate how wise their Pilgrim forebears were in how they made a place for themselves in a new land. But I don’t think we had much of that. And, if we did, not much of it stuck.
In terms of values, I think most kids learn more from their family than they do from school. Of course, we can’t control what our children believe or what they will grow up to be, but that does not take away our obligation to do our best to Teach Your Children.
As liberal Jews — ones deeply committed to egalitarianism, the full participation of women in all aspects of religious life — it’s going to be a challenge for my wife and I to supplement or counter what our five-year old girl is learning in school. Up until this year, we were privileged to be able to send her to a wonderful gan (pre-school) that was both religious, and liberal and egalitarian. It was a place where she learned lots of wonderful holiday songs in Hebrew, but where she was very unlikely to be learning any about rebuilding the Temple as a Hanukah song.
But with kindergarten, she is beginning to be in the fully public system here. That system leaves you as parents with two stark choices, either religious (ie, Orthodox) or secular. There’s no liberal religious choice in between. We will have to decide soon which system we will send her to for first grade next year. It’s a heart-wrenching decision. I hope the Blessed Holy One will give us the wisdom to make the right choice — the right choice for her, for the people Israel and for the world. And I hope we will be blessed with the wisdom and energy to educate her at home in the values we most hold dear.
May all who are celebrating have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a wonderful Hanukah!
I haven’t been able to find out too much about the song itself, although I heard it suggested that it’s by מירי ישראלי. Here are all the lyrics I was able to find:
לאורך הגלות הארוכה והקשה
פורצת מליבנו עולה הבקשה
אנא, אלוקים, אמור לצרותינו די
די לסבל, די לצער, עד מתי
אנא, בנה בנה בנה
בנה לנו בית המקדש
ותאיר ירושלים באור חדש
כהנים אז יעבדו
לויים אז ינגנו
וכולם לך יודו וירננו