Zot Hanukah: The Chanukah story is Judaism’s Calvinist moment

During the course of the week long plus Chanukah holiday which ends today, I have wondered about the logic of this celebration, and even more so, about its purpose.

Had the Maccabees been defeated by the Greeks, had the Jewish Hellenizers triumphed over the Hasmonean traditionalists, the already defiled Temple in Jerusalem would have probably been destroyed sometime during the 160’s BCE.  But the Hasmoneans won the war and so the Temple lasted for another 250 years, more or less, until the year 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

In other words, the Hasmoneans won a pyrrhic victory.  Despite the heroism of Judah the Maccabee and his brothers, despite their swagger and their bravado, the Temple was destroyed anyway.  The “Maccabee moment” did not establish a successful warrior tradition in Judaism.  Rather, it was only a triumphant interlude – a passing moment – whose romantic footprint left no significant impression on our historical narrative.  So what is the point of our celebration?

Allow me put this matter differently.

Imagine, God forbid, if the State of Israel had been destroyed by the Arabs in the June War of 1967.  Or if in October of 1973, Moshe Dayan’s dark prognosis that “the Third House is going under,” would have come to pass.  Would anyone continue celebrating Israel Independence Day?  Would Religious-Zionist synagogues and schools in the Diaspora still chant the hallel and sponsor a day of joy and merry making on 5 days in Iyar?  Would Zionism’s swagger and bravado, so dear to our current sense of self, be worthy of perpetual tribute.

I think not.  In fact, I think that Israel Independence Day would be converted into a day of mourning, probably sustained by a voluntary fast.  What would there be to celebrate?  That the experiment in political sovereignty and national independence culminated in a tragedy?

Well, the Chanukah story is just that.  Yes, the Hasmoneans won their war against the Greeks and one cruise of oil miraculously burned for eight consecutive days and nights.  But so what?  The Jewish Commonwealth and Temple were destroyed anyway.  So why do we continue celebrate?

Unless the Chanukah story is not so much about Judaism’s “Maccabee moment,” about the swagger and bravado of Judah and his brothers, as it is about what I cautiously and extremely reluctantly feel compelled to call Judaism’s “Calvinist moment.”

You see, the Hasmonean victory was not just a pyrrhic victory.  It was also a barren victory.

The valor of the Maccabees, their boldness and daring-do, their purification of the Temple and their renewal of its rituals, were not enough to restore prophecy to the people of Israel.

Prophesy in Israel lapsed when Alexander the Great conquered Judea.  And when God’s voice fell silent, many Jews abandoned the faith – either in full or in part – in order to integrate into the Hellenist world which now lay open before them.  These Jews embraced Hellenic humanism as the standard for measuring all things of value, not just aesthetics – the raw physical beauty of man so exquisitely displayed at the Greek Olympics – but also morality and rationality.

Now, unlike the secular modernity of our times, whose ideals are rooted in the austere monotheism of the Calvinist component of the Christian Enlightenment, Greek Humanism is saturated with paganism.  As such, Greek Humanism is utterly incompatible with Judaism which is why the Rabbis were certain that when Hellenism was routed by the Maccabees prophesy would be restored in Israel.

But prophesy in Israel was not restored.  Even after the purification of the Temple and the restoration of its worship, God’s voice remained silent.  And the Rabbis knew well that without prophecy the Temple was a doomed institution.  Without the magical authority of the Prophet to check and balance the magical efficacy of the Temple and its worship, the Priests of the Temple would become simple religious magicians enthrall to nothing beyond their magic and their power.

And that is exactly what happened.

Within just one generation, the Hasmoneans, who quickly took control of the Temple after consolidating their political power, transformed themselves from the bitterest enemies of the Hellenists into Hellenisms greatest champions.  Soon enough, during the reign of Alexander Yanai, Hasmonean Hellenism morphed into anti-religious activism which found its fullest expression in the decree of clerecide which Alexander Yanai promulgated against the Rabbis.

From there it was just two short steps until Judea was engulfed in fratricidal warfare which led to the Roman occupation of Israel and the end of Jewish independence.  By then, of course, the road to destruction was clear to all.

But I suspect that the Rabbis foresaw this enfolding decay when to their great disappointment prophesy was not restored to Israel following the Hanukah War.  Right then and there the Rabbis became convinced that the Temple and its Priests would sink into the muck of corruption, which meant that at some point in the not too distant future the God of Israel would once again destroy His Temple and bring the nation to ruin.

In other words, the pyrrhic and barren victory of the Hasmoneans in the Hanukah War gave the Rabbis, then called the Men of the Great Assembly who would soon to evolve into the Pharisees and later into chazal, a 200 plus years head start to create the mechanisms for sustaining Judaism in the absence of both territory and Temple.

The main element of their revised Judaism – what modern scholars rooted in the traditions of 19th century German-Jewish wissenchaft derisively dubbed Rabbinic Judaism – was the Talmud and its relentless exegetic logic.

The folio pages of this massive work, which would replace the Bible as the foundation text of the Jewish faith – at least according to the Orthodox – forever turned the Jews away from the magical and the mystical, the magnificent, the prophetic, and the romantic.  Instead of yearning for the chimerical and the spectacular, Judaism and its loyalists would henceforth be confined to the material and the mundane, subjecting themselves and their rituals to the logic of the law.

This logic, the syllogisms of the Talmudic text, inoculated the Jews against the corrosive allure of what David Hume called religious enthusiasm.  The efficacy of the magical would play no further role in maintaining the Jewish faith and its rituals.  The Rabbis not only incarcerated the Jewish religion in this world, they even declared that God Himself was confined to “the four cubits of halakha.”

With the benefit of their foresight – 200 hundred plus years to plan and prepare – the Rabbis designed the inchoate Talmud, first creating the blueprint for what became the Mishnah, and then producing the blueprint for what became Gemara.  As such, when the Temple was destroyed the Rabbis were ready with a fully developed social and religious program which would maintain Jews and Judaism even without the charm of the Priests, even in the absence of the charisma of the land and the seductive appeal of churning its dirt.

Secular rationality sustained by the rigorous and immutable exegetic logic of the Talmud would forever define Judaism and its ethos.  From that point forward, the Jewish people would carry the burden of being the worldly standard bearers of non-magical religious authority.

So why do we celebrate Hanukkah?  What is the purpose of this unusual holiday?

The story of Hanukah transformed us into a thinking nation whose “choseness” would henceforth be projected as a consequence of our wisdom rather than an expression of our majesty.

Put pithily, “start-up nation,” which captures the future of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, that is, the future of the modern State of Israel, originates in the Rabbis’ reaction to the Hanukah War.

And that is just another way of saying the Hanukah story is not so much about our ephemeral “Maccabee moment,” as it is about our permanent “Calvinist moment.”

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY