The Rabbis tell us that Chanukah recalls a miracle that occurred nearly 2,200 years ago:
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. (BT Shabbat 21b)
The story of the Maccabees’ victory over the army of Antiochus Epiphanies IV of Syria is well-known to school children. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Shalem College has written, “Hanukah became a holiday about survival, about the spirit overpowering the sword, about good overcoming evil, and about the few—if their cause is just—ultimately vanquishing the many, and the possibility of survival for those who would seem to have no hope.” This resonates well with Alan Gross’ release from five years of imprisonment in Cuba.
Historically, however, Chanukah emerged from a two-front war. The first front was a war against the Greeks who denied Jewish distinctiveness and national aspirations. The second front was a war within: a civil war between Jews who disagreed about what it meant to be Jewish, and how one ought to be Jewish in the second century B.C.E. In a sense, neither war has ended.
Torah promised it would not be this way. Torah asserts that if Israel keeps God’s covenant, not only will they be showered with the blessings of fertility, prosperity, peace, health, and security:
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם--וְשָׁמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. וַאֲהֵבְךָ, וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ; וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי-בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי-אַדְמָתֶךָ דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, שְׁגַר-אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹת צֹאנֶךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ. בָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים: לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה, וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ… וְהֵסִיר יְהוָה מִמְּךָ, כָּל-חֹלִי…;
And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your ancestors: He will favor you and bless you multiple you; He will bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the saving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land that He swore o your ancestors to assign you…The Lord will ward off from you all sickness… (Deuteronomy 7:12-13, 15)
It is far too facile and simplistic to say: Well, guess we didn’t keep the covenant. If we have not kept God’s covenant, how is it that there are Jews throughout the world 2,500 years after these words were written? And more: other peoples will take note and recognize the wisdom of Torah. Moses tells the Israelites:
רְאֵה לִמַּדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוַּנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי: לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן--בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּאִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. ו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה. ז כִּי מִי-גוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו, כַּיהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, בְּכָל-קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו. ח וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם, כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם.
See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
Is Torah expressing no more than a remarkable fantasy that if we behave as Jews, each doing our part to keep God’s covenant, the nations of the world will see us as a עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, a wise and discerning people, and thereby recognize the compassion of God and value the wisdom of Torah?
Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out that way. We do not have peace, either from without, or within.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe. Jews have been physically assaulted in recent months in countries we thought had moved beyond such violence. Israel’s right to exist is denied on a regular basis by peoples who own cultures and political regimes are devoid of human rights and marked by violence. As Phyllis Chesler and others have noted, anti-Zionism is the modern socially and politically acceptable form of an ancient hatred.
Many years ago, Dennis Prager and Dennis Telushkin penned a book entitled Why the Jews? The Reason for Anti-Semitism. At the time I read it, their thesis sounded hubristic and self-serving. Prager and Telushkin’s primary two points were: (1) Hatred of Jews is displaced animosity toward one or more of the three pillars of Judaism: morality, law, and peoplehood. Judaism (this thinking goes) thrusts the voice of conscience into the center of the town square, never permitting people to exalt pagan hedonism, perpetually and adamantly reminding us of our individual and communal moral responsibilities, and asserting that, as a people, Israel enjoys a special relationship with God. One finds Jews at the forefront of virtually every human rights endeavor; and concerns for human dignity, social justice, and social welfare are paramount in most every (at least most every liberal) Jewish community. (2) There is a line of causality between Israel’s election and anti-Semitism. One might question this thesis in the light of Christianity and Islam, which also claim to be God’s elect (and with horrific consequences for those not “chosen”), but a reasonable response is that the claim of Jewish election so rankled others that they made the claim that they were elected in place of the Jews. Whatever the reasons, anti-Semitism continues unabated.
Chanukah emerged from a two-pronged war. One prong was a civil war. When we take a reading of our internal barometer, we hardly find harmonious brotherhood reigning among the communities of Israel. Thanks to the modern electronic communication at the speed of light we are more aware of one another’s ideas and beliefs than at any time in history, and perhaps more divided than ever. Any semblance of respect has all but evaporated in far too many quarters. How often do people distrust one another’s kashrut or hashgachah? How often do even liberal rabbis call into question the legitimacy of their colleagues’ conversions? How often does one group or another claim to be the bearer of “authentic” Judaism, the true expression of Torah values, and thereby devalue all other streams of our tradition?
My usual inclination is to share a commentary I find meaningful, in the hope that you, too, will find value in it. On this occasion, however, I share a drash that I find potentially problematic. It was written by the S’fat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the second Gerer Rebbe, concerning Chanukah. The S’fat Emet shares a teaching he learned from his grandfather, Yitzhak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, who raised him after he was orphaned at the age of eight.
My grandfather and teacher quoted the Gemara that says: “Wicks and oils that the sages said not to use to light shabbat lamps may be used for the lights of Chanukah.” This, he explained, refers to the impure souls within Israel. The word נפש nefesh (“soul”) stands for נר Ner/ פתילה Petilah/ שמן SHemen (“lamp/wick/oil”). Those that cannot rise up on shabbat—because “the light skips in them and [the wicks] are not drawn up”—can be brought up on Chanukah. Thus far my grandfather’s teaching.
I have included the Gemara from the Babylonian Talmud that the S’fat Emet’s grandfather quoted in a footnote below, because it is too long and complex to delve into. In the Gemara, the Sages tell us that only fine quality wicks and oils may be used to light Shabbat lights, but lesser quality wicks and oils are sufficient for Chanukah lights. The Talmud’s reasoning concerns what a person may be inclined to do, as well as what one is permitted to do, if the flame flickers and goes out because the inferior quality materials are unable to sustain a strong, steady flame. The Talmud is talking only of wicks and oils, but the S’fat Emet’s grandfather, invoking an acronym for the word נפש nefesh (“soul”) equates the inferior wicks and oils with “inferior” Jews: Jews that keep shabbat are superior Jews; Jews who do not keep shabbat—“the light skips in them and [the wicks] are not drawn up”—nonetheless may be inspired to celebrate Chanukah. The dichotomy between “fine quality” and “inferior quality” wicks and oils is one thing; to categorize people in this way is quite another.
The S’fat Emet continues by distinguishing between the festivals described in Torah, the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), on the one hand, and Chanukah and Purim, which he labels in contrast “oral Torah,” on the other hand.
These holidays of Chanukah and Purim belong to the oral Torah. The three festivals God gave us [Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot] are commanded expressly in the written Torah. God gave us those holy times, sanctified since Creation, for all was created through the Torah. They עדות bear witness that the Holy One Blessed be God has chosen Israel and is close to them, giving them God’s holy testimony מועדות. The term מועד (“festival”) is related to the language of עדות (“testimony”).
The two tiers of wicks and oils, which parallel two tiers of Jews, are reflected in two tiers of holidays. The pilgrimage festivals, because they derive from Scripture, are woven into the fabric of Creation itself. Chanukah and Purim, in contrast, come about because of “historical” circumstances and are therefore not holy days.
But Chanukah and Purim are מועדות special times that Israel merited by their own deeds. These are called oral Torah; they are עדות witness that Israel chose the Holy One Blessed be God. Israel are joined to God and their deeds arouse God, for here they are capable of creating new sacred times by their deeds. And because these holidays are brought about by Israel’s own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through them. Every single Jew can find a way to belong and attach to them.
Yet Chanukah and Purim have a special character: The S’fat Emet tells us that while the pilgrimage festivals reflect God’s reaching out to Israel, Chanukah and Purim reflect Israel’s reaching out to God. By their courageous deeds and dedication, Israel sanctified these festivals and aroused God’s love. So far, so good. I appreciate the acknowledgement of human agency in the divine drama. But the S’fat Emet says more: Jews can be “restored” through them. It’s not entirely clear how he means this, but I suspect that for S’fat Emet, this means more than that Chanukah and Purim can be access points for Jews to find meaning in their tradition. Rather, I suspect that he means that these two historical festivals can be portals for Jews who do not observe as the Gerer Rebbe does to arrive at the practice of Judaism he knows and affirms.
I am wildly in favor of greater engagement with Jewish tradition and Jewish learning. But I also prize Jewish diversity as a sign of our strength and vitality. Walking in ritual lockstep and marching to the same theological drumbeat will weaken us. We are stronger when our searching and learning lead us to emergent ideas and diverse understandings of our tradition that we can share with one another. I would like to think that Torah’s promise is real, if not yet realized. When we keep God’s covenant—not in the fashion of one or another particular halakhic imam invested with “truth” to the exclusion of all other expressions of Judaism, but rather because we are all engaged, learning, and seeking meaning—then the wisdom inherent in Torah will emerge to bless not only us, but others as well. I would like to think that there are enough good souls in the world ready to receive wisdom from the many sources God’s Creation provides, for indeed all wisdom comes from the Source.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
BT Shabbat 21a,b: [OPINION #1] Rav Huna said: With regard to the wicks and oils which the Sages said, One must not use them to light shabbat lamps [because they are of inferior quality], one may not light Chanukah lamps with them, either on shabbat or on weekdays. Rava observed: What is R. Huna's reason? He holds that if [the Chanukah lamp] goes out, one must attend to it [i.e., to rekindle them because Chanukah lights must burn for a minimum amount of time equivalent to approximately 1/2 hour], and one may make use of its light [R. Huna says one may make use of Chanukah lamps for person purposes and is therefore concerned that if the inferior wicks or oil produce a flickering, insubstantial flame, a person might be tempted on shabbat do something to improve its flame that would be considered work]. [OPINION #2] Rav Chisda maintained: One may light with them [the inferior wicks and oil that are prohibited for shabbat] on weekdays, but not on shabbat. He reasons: If it goes out, [21b] it does not require attention [i.e., one is not obliged to rekindle it], and one may make use of its light [as R. Huna said above]. [OPINION #3] R. Zeira said in R. Matnah's name (others state, R. Zeira said in Rav's name): Regarding the wicks and oils which the Sages said, One must not light shabbat lamps with them, one may light Chanukah lamps with them either on weekdays or on shabbat. Said R. Yermiyahu, What is Rav's reason? He holds: If it goes out, it does not require attention [i.e., one is not obligated to rekindle it], and one may not make use of its light.
Chanukah certainly derives from historical circumstances: the rebellion of the Maccabees against the Syrian overlords in the second century BCE. Purim, however, is a celebration of the story told in the Book of Esther, a witty and sardonic sophisticated sexual-political satire, which is a literary marvel, but not based on a particular historical event.