Friday, December 7, 2012

Whatever were the Rabbis thinking? / Chanukah

Here is the narrative I was taught about the terse and enigmatic pronouncement concerning Chanukah in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud): The Rabbis would have preferred to have expunged Chanukah from the Jewish liturgical lexicon and practice for two reasons: First, because the war that Chanukah commemorates was a civil war between assimilated Jews who were more than willing to trade their national identity and practices to blend into the Greco-Roman world, and anti-assimilationists. Second, the Rabbis were pacifists and abhorred the idea of celebrating even the victorious outcome of a war. So the Rabbis chose not to tell the history of Chanukah — according to the narrative — and instead concocted a cute little story about a cruse of oil that miraculously lasted eight times as long as expected to serve as a symbol of the miracle of Jewish survival. Problem is: there is no evidence the Rabbis hated Chanukah (arguments from silence are notoriously weak), and they were certainly not pacifists. Judaism is a peace-loving tradition, but not a pacifistic one; there are times when fighting a war is necessary, and there is no question that the war of the Maccabees was one of those times.

Rather than speaking from silence, I want to explore with you the textual legacy of our Sages and try to explicate their wisdom for us. The passage in question comes from the masechet (tractate) Shabbat 21b. My commentary is interpolated:

Our Rabbis taught: The commandment of Chanukah requires one light per household; the zealous kindle a light for each member of the household; and the extremely zealous -- Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced [by one each day]; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. Ulla said: In the West [Eretz Yisrael] two amoraim, R. Yose b. Abin and R. Yose b. Zevida, differ concerning this: one maintains, the reasoning of Bet Shammai is that it should correspond to the days still to come, and that of Bet Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But another maintains: Bet Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival [of Tabernacles; i.e. Sukkot], while Bet Hillel's reason is that we increase in matters of sanctity but do not reduce. Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There are two old men in Sidon: one did as Bet Shammai and the other as Bet Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason because we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.

The choice between increasing lights (Bet Hillel) and decreasing lights (Bet Shammai) mirrors our sense of holiness: are we looking back at what was but is now lost, or to the future and what can be?

The argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai — one among dozens in the Talmud — concerns the mechanics of lighting the chanukkiah (Chanukah menorah). The reason for their different schema is what is important, and the more significant difference is the anonymous opinion given last: For Bet Shammai the candles mirror the Sukkot sacrifices that would have been made at the appropriate time in the Temple had not the Syrians overrun and defiled it.

Why Sukkot sacrifices? By the time the Israelites reclaimed the Temple, it had been three years since the Jews had been able to bring sacrifices. Sukkot was the most recent festival they had missed (nearly 2-½ months before). The Sukkot sacrifices were crucially important both because of the expressions of thanksgiving for the harvest expressed during Sukkot, and also because of the prayers for winter rain that commence during Sukkot in the Land of Israel would hopefully insure a robust harvest in the coming year.

For Bet Hillel, the candles are about holiness, not sacrifices. The Syrians threatened the entire Jewish enterprise. Had they succeeded, Israel — like so many other small Semitic nations at the time — would have been wiped from the map, if not from history. Were that to have happened, the Jewish mission would have ended then and there. A tradition that teaches the sanctity of every human being, and the spiritual value of sanctifying time, events, and relationships — and ultimately, everything — would have been lost.

By the time this passage was written in Babylonia, the destruction of the Second Temple had happened several centuries before. For the Rabbis who recount the disagreement between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, the Temple is long gone, and although they prayed and longed for its rebuilding, and composed prayers and structured prayer services to replace the sacrifices, they understood their true situation: the Temple will not be rebuilt for a long time. In favoring Hillel’s scheme, the Rabbis chose to identify the candles with the Temple lamps and ner tamid, symbols of the eternal relationship between God and Israel, rather than with sacrifices of the past. The message of the candles points ahead to the Jewish People’s future and Judaism’s purpose rather than back.  We increase in sanctity; we don’t decrease. Judaism, they are telling us, is not an ancient relic; it is a living, breathing, vibrant tradition that teaches us to bring holiness into the world, and carries us through whatever the future brings our way. The Rabbis thereby transform Chanukah from a festival of nostalgia into a celebration of the holiness we can yet bring into the world in the future.

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Chanukah lamp by the door of one's house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, place it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table. Raba said: Another lamp is required for its light to be used; yet if there is a blazing fire it is unnecessary. But in the case of an important person, even if there is a blazing fire another lamp is required.

Placing a chanukkiah in the window publicizes the miracle of Chanukah — reminding everyone of the crucial importance of religious freedom. We need religious freedom now as much as ever.

Allen D. Hertzke writes in The Future of Religious Freedom: Global Challenges (Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 292): “I divide civilizations into two groups: open civilizations and closed civilizations. An open civilization does not see itself as the only civilization. It respects other civilizations and supports a world order where multiple civilizations can coexist. In contrast, a closed civilization sees itself as the only true civilization and tries to eliminate all other cultures to establish a world order with a single dominant civilization.” The Hellenists constructed a closed civilization. They outlawed Shabbat, circumcision, and kashrut in their quest to expunge Jewish particularity from their empire.

Religious freedom is crucial for an open civilization and only an open civilization can guarantee human rights and support democracy. The crucial importance of religious freedom cannot be overstated. Placing the chanukkiah — with its attention-getting flames blazing in the darkness — in a visible, public location, trumpets the message of religious freedom.

Peter, Paul, and Mary got it right in “Light One Candle,” their beautiful tribute to Chanukah. Here is the first verse:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks their light didn't die;
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied;
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand;
And light one candle for the wisdom to know
That the peacemaker's time is at hand!

The Rabbis give us the barest and briefest summary of the history of the war.

What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.

The Maccabees did not choose particularity over universalism; they combined the two. Jewish vibrancy, dynamism, and success require careful and thoughtful compromise: we cannot live alone and apart from the rest of the world, but neither should we absorb practices and values that dilute the best of Jewish ethics and spirituality. Our goal should be to absorb the best of the wisdom available and adapt it to Jewish tradition.

The Syrians defiled the Temple, the most sacred place in the world for Jews. They tore down the altar, splattered pig’s blood around, and desecrated scrolls of Torah. They erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple precinct. We might think that after such desecration, the Temple could never be redeemed, purified, and sanctified again. But it was. The Maccabees cleaned it out and rededicated the Temple to God; the word Chanukah means “dedication.” The Temple’s purity was restored. The sacred can be defiled, but it remains sacred. A Torah scroll that is pasul (damaged and unusable) does not lose its sanctity; it is buried in sanctified ground, not thrown away. The redemption of the Temple teaches us that we should not regard anything and especially anyone — including ourselves — as beyond redemption. It’s a message we need to hear again and again.

Finally, the Rabbis mention the Hasmoneans, the dynasty that arose from the Maccabees. In the narrative I learned about Chanukah, they were the “true Jewish heroes” who adhered rigorously to Jewish observance, while others were eager to shed it. Therefore, the Maccabees fought not only the Syrians, but also assimilationist Jews allied with the Hellenists. Shades of a civil war. Peter, Paul, and Mary allude to this aspect of Chanukah, as well:

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe;
Light one candle for those who are suff'ring
A pain they learned so long ago;
Light one candle for all we believe in,
That anger not tear us apart;
And light one candle to bind us together
With peace as the song in our heart!

And indeed, we find ourselves today in a situation where segments of the Jewish community deride, devalue, and invalidate others.

However, it is an over-simplification to view the struggle of the Maccabees as being between assimilationist Jews and anti-assimilationist Jews, as if it were all or nothing. That is not historical reality. The Maccabees were neither fully particularistic, nor were they entirely universalistic; they understood the need for balance. Jewish survival requires a compromise between particularism (in the extreme case, clinging to our culture and traditions and shunning all else) and universalism (in the extreme case, swinging the doors wide open and jettisoning everything that is identifiably Jewish). When we bless the Torah at a public reading, we say …she-na-ta b’tocheinu cha-yei olam / Who has implanted within us eternal life. I don’t think this has anything to do with notions of spiritual immortality; I understand this to mean that we, the Jewish People, are eternal. We have survived, and will continue to not only survive but also flourish, because we have adopted and adapted the best of our host cultures, while maintaining our particular traditions and values.

The use of power is a dicey — and unavoidable — component for the survival of a nation. The question is not whether, but how, power is employed.

Liturgically, Chanukah is acknowledged by reciting Hallel and expanding Modim. In addition, a special Haftarah from the book of the prophet Zechariah is designated for the shabbat during Chanukah. Zechariah was among those who, after the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E., under the patronage of Cyrus the Mede, king of Persia, rebuilt the Temple. The passage we read (2:14–4:7) opens with a pronouncement of God’s promise to return to Zion (as God “returned” to the rededicated Temple) and describes the preparation and purification of the High Priest (mirroring the cleaning and purifying of the Temple). The prophet’s vision of the Temple menorah signals the chanukkiah. The Rabbis left us one more salient message by the choice of this Haftarah, which includes these words:

Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit — said the Lord of Hosts. (4:6)

The single cruse of oil, like the candles we kindle in our chanukkiot, represent not raw human power, grit, and determination, but human strength powered by God’s glory. If we operate from a place that exalts human power alone, every manner of atrocity and horror can and probably will result. But if we operate from a place of God’s spirit — holding close God’s presence in our hearts and minds — then if and when we have to go to war, we will do what we must, but no more. And when we don’t need to go to war, we will avoid it, and at all times pursue peace. Today’s Israeli army is the finest example of a military guided by ethics. No other country discusses, investigates, and worries more about the behavior of its military. Here are a few things to read:
 Let’s let Peter, Paul, and Mary close out this drash.

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died?
We cry out "they've not died in vain,"
We have come this far, always believing
That justice will somehow prevail;
This is the burden, This is the promise,
This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out,
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears!

You can see and hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Light One Candle” here.

Happy Chanukah!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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