What is Chanukah about
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 26, 1997
Maimonides, in his great Code, describes the mitzva of lighting Chanukah candles as 'extremely beloved.' At least in this instance, popular imagination and Halacha are congruent. No holiday so resonates with modern Jews as Chanukah.
But if Chanukah is much beloved by Jews even today, it is often for the wrong reasons. In America, the holiday has long been a poor-man's Christmas: Jewish children boast to their classmates that their present giving extends over eight days.
In Israel, the story of the Maccabees' triumph over the mighty Seleucid Empire has been appropriated as part of the process of national myth-building. The victory of the 'few over the many, of the weak over the mighty' is portrayed as foreshadowing the miraculous Jewish victory in 1948 over the vastly more numerous Arab armies. Our Sages emphasized the miracle of the oil; today we focus only on the miracle of the military victory.
Yet the portrayal of Chanukah only as a revolt against a foreign oppressor - stout-hearted Jews against cruel Greeks - does considerable violence to history. The Maccabees launched a civil war, as well as a revolt against a foreign tyrant. The first person felled by Mattathias, the patriarch of the family, was not a Greek, but a Jew who offered a sacrifice on the pagan altar in Modi'in.
For every mother who defied Antiochus' ban on circumcision, and was thrown from the walls of Jerusalem with her newborn babe for doing so, there were many more Jews who adorned their shops and courtyards with wreaths of roses symbolizing the superiority of the Greek gods. For all those burned alive in caves as they observed Shabbat in secret, there were many more who proclaimed that they had no more portion in the God of Israel on the foreheads of their bulls and beasts of burden.
Long before Antiochus declared war on the practice of Judaism, a large portion of the priestly and upper classes had fully embraced Hellenism. In addition, those leaders provided enough sensual delights and entertainments to win over the weak-willed among the common people as well. But, for the contempt for the Law shown by Jews themselves, Antiochus would never have been emboldened to try to wipe out all Jewish practice.
Among those Greek practices that loomed largest as abominations in the eyes of Mattathias and his sons were the athletic contests in which upper-class Jewish youth eagerly participated. Those contests were an expression of the Greek obsession with proving oneself. Virtue for the Greeks had nothing to do with the moral content of one's actions but only with establishing one's superiority in some form of human endeavor. The agon, or contest, whether in art or sports, played a central role in Greek culture.
By contrast, the idea of heroic self-expression is totally foreign to Jewish thought. The rabbis were not concerned with proving themselves. They did not seek to establish their own greatness but to conform their deeds to the Divine will. They measured every action and thought by the calipers of morality, not by the abilities revealed.
To participate in the Greek games, Jewish youths had evidence of their circumcisions surgically removed. For the Greeks, who identified the natural with the ideal, circumcision was nothing less than mutilation, a violation of the perfection of nature. For Jews, however, the body only becomes perfect as it relates to God through the performance of a mitzva. Only after his brit mila is Abraham described in the Torah as being complete or perfect.
Given how faithful Jews like Mattathias and his sons abhorred Greek athletic contests, the naming of the modern Jewish Olympiad after the Maccabees represents a breathtakingly audacious inversion of everything they stood for. But that is what happens when history is ransacked for useful symbols in the service of myth-making.
For the last 200 years or so, much of world Jewry has been torn apart by a struggle reminiscent of that between the Maccabees and their Jewish contemporaries. Those wishing to assimilate into the dominant national or world culture are pitted against those determined to preserve the uniqueness of Jewish life based on Torah.
Since the early 1800s, a new religion has even been created to facilitate Jewish assimilation. The first goal of German Reform was full citizenship for Jews. The purchase price was renunciation of all Jewish national goals and aspirations. All references to a return to Zion or a reconstituted national existence were purged from the Reform prayer book. 'Jerusalem is to us an indifferent city,' proclaimed Avraham Geiger, the leader of German Reform. German Jews began to refer to themselves not as Jews, which term implied a national identity, but as Germans of the Mosaic faith.
Since Jews had always perceived of themselves as one people by virtue of their Law - a Law which preceded their entry into the Land and which they carried with them into exile - rejection of the Law went together with the renunciation of national identity. 'The Talmud must go,' said Geiger, 'along with the Bible as a Divine work.'
Fearful that those who stubbornly clung to the Law would reveal that Jews were not yet worthy of emancipation, Reformers used their power, in every city in which they gained control of the communal organization, to brutally oppress the traditionalists. Mikvaot were filled in, the production of kosher food halted, and yeshivot closed. The Frankfurt community board, like Antiochus, banned the study of Torah and employed the local police to enforce that ban. (The vaunted Reform tolerance did not extend to those wishing to practice their Judaism according to the tradition.)
Immanuel Kant, the greatest of German philosophers, announced that Jews would only be accepted if they purged their religion of its ancient identifying ritual, and many were only to eager to comply. Reformers introduced organs and choirs into the house of the worship, moved the bima to the front, and placed the rabbi facing the congregation dressed in elegant robes, all in slavish imitation of the nearby Lutheran service.
Kant, not Moses the Lawgiver, became the patron saint of German Reform.
According to Kant, only an autonomously chosen act has any moral value. His elevation of individual conscience to the role of ultimate arbiter of morality remains the watchword of Reform to this day.
For that reason, Reform is constitutionally hostile to the very idea of Halacha, or Divine command. It must reject any binding standards for individuals or congregations as a matter of principle. Some congregations prefer a little more ritual, some a little less. But either way, writes Jakob Petuchowski, a leading Reform theologian, that ritual represents 'religious pageantry, not Halacha.' W. Gunther Plaut, another leading Reform thinker, characterizes modern Reform as 'Jewishly inspired Unitarianism.'
As we light the Chanukah candles this year, we might all ask ourselves: Would we have been with the Maccabees or with the Hellenists? Even more pertinently: Are we today part of the problem of assimilation or part of the solution?
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list