Will the Real Chanukah Please Stand Up?

We are all accustomed to the secular American version of Chanukah being the Festival of Consumerism (and food). Presents, more presents, even more presents, latkes and plenty of donuts (plus an expanding waistline) are the mainstays of the celebration.

Lately, however, a few rabbis who identify themselves with the outer edge of Orthodoxy have likewise proposed very nontraditional visions of Chanukah.

One such rabbi equates Chanukah with the legalization of same-sex marriage; another suggests that the Sages who instituted Chanukah as a holiday and created its liturgy actually opposed the idea of Chanukah and instituted it as a compromise.

We are told by this rabbi:

The rabbis were giving a clear indication of their distaste for the Chashmonaim and their approach… Chazal (the Sages) did everything they could to squelch this holiday of zealotry and intra-Jewish fighting. Ultimately compromising with a people who wanted or needed the heroics of the Maccabees marked on the calendar, they allowed for a much muted holiday… But Chazal’s approach to Chanukah espouses openness to the world around us and tolerance of difference. In lighting the candles, we open up to the world around us with the light of Torah and mitzvoth guiding us in our exploration of the other. Let us celebrate this beautiful chag by remembering the pride of the Chashmonaim (the Maccabees) but also the openness of Chazal to the outside world…

The beautiful Chanukah liturgy composed by Chazal, and the words of the Rambam (Maimonides) at the beginning of Hil. Chanukah/The Laws of Chanukah, enthusiastically affirm the traditional view of the holiday and flatly contradict the above approach.

And yet another far-left rabbi has just posited that we redefine Chanukah basically however we would like:

Instead of eight days of presents, (a coarse imitation of both Christmas and the materialist society we live in) why not remake Chanukah as an eight day celebration of diaspora Jewish culture? We could celebrate a different aspect of Jewish culture each day—food, literature, art, music, dance, philosophy, wisdom and faith. Perhaps Chanukah is the time of year that we ought to look at the tensions between our desire to be part of the larger world and our mandate to be a unique and special people. Such a remaking of Chanukah would not make us comfortable allies with zealots, but it might well allow us to ask ourselves some challenging questions about Jewish authenticity and purpose.

This rabbi also suggests what he terms an “inner Hassidic approach” to Chanukah, that would replace the holiday’s traditional connotations:

Chanukah in this Hasidic key isn’t about the war against the Greeks, or miraculous oil, but its also not about a cultural rededication to outward expressions of Jewish practice or observance. It is about rededication to a form of Jewish life that begins with a recovery of an authentic self, a rediscovery of one’s deeper sense of unique purpose. The light that for the rabbinic sages served to publicize an ancient miraculous renewal, was turned into a flashlight leading inwardly on a journey to the soul.

I am sure that the original Hasidic masters would be horrified to learn that their ideas have been used to promote a version of Chanukah that divorces the holiday from its origins. The great Hasidic rebbes merely delved deeper into the theology of Chanukah, but in no way denied its basics!

I suggest that for an authentic vision and articulation of the core message of Chanukah, we turn to the words of Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik zt”l:

Just as the Ner Tamid (Perpetual Flame) was the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah (Manifestation of the Divine Presence) in the Beis Ha-Mikdash, so, too, the Ner Chanukah also serves as the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among Jews all over the world. The Ner Chanukah, itself, embodies the Ner Tamid of the Mikdash. Thus, the purpose of the mitzvah of Pirsumei Nisa (Publicizing the Miracle), by Chanukah, is to demonstrate the presence of Giluy Shechinah (Revelation of the Divine Preence), through the lighting of the Ner Chanukah. The light of the Ner Chanukah is the medium of revelation of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews. In the same manner as the Ner Tamid tells the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews in the Mikdash, so too, the Ner Chanukah states the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah in the present generation.

The main conflict between the Hellenists and the Jews centered around the concept of Bechiras Yisrael (Chosenness of the Jewish People). The Hellenists wanted the Jews to abandon their awareness of Bechiras Yisrael. The Hellenists, and later the Romans, hated the Jews because the Jews believed in Bechiras Yisrael. Thus, the function of Ner Chanukah is to remind us of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah…

The Shechinah addresses itself through the Ner Chanukah, and the Ner Chanukah demonstrates that the Shechinah resides among the Jews: “.עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל” (“The Western Lamp of the Menorah in the Beis Ha-Mikdash is testimony that the Divine Presence resides among the Jewish People.” – Shabbos 26b) This concept is the crux of the entire Torah. Thus, the Rambam used special language (explained earlier in this shiur – AG) with regard to Chanukah.

Furthermore, הנרות הללו קודש הם (“These lights are holy”) means that one should react to the Ner Chanukah in the same manner that Moses reacted to the fire of the Burning Bush, where he immediately sought to investigate that strange phenomena: “.אסורה ואראה את המראה הגדול הזה” – “I will detour and investigate this strange sight.” Our reaction to the Ner Chanukah should be similar to that. One must investigate and analyze the purpose of Nes Chanukah. The Rambam, thus, repeatedly emphasizes that Ner Chanukah is not to be taken as simply another mitzvah d’Rabbanan (rabbinical enactment), but is to be regarded as one of the fundamental mitzvos which symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jews.

May the message of Chanukah continue to enlighten and inspire us all and encourage us to commit even more passionately to our tradition.

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar.