December 2018

The Sword or the Spirit—Which Version of Hanukkah Should We Celebrate?

More than any time in recent history, the story of Hanukkah seems extremely relevant. There are two different versions of the story and each proposes a different approach to oppression and resistance. As we consider the increasing visibility of antisemitism in our country and how to respond, it is instructive to consider these two varying perspectives. One narrative about Hanukkah comes to us from the First and Second Books of the Maccabees, stories that were not included in the Hebrew Bible but are part of some Christian Bibles. In this first version, the holiday commemorates a military victory over occupying forces. Responding to increasingly harsh decrees against Jewish practice, a man named Mattathias and his sons raise an army to fight the Greeks. Led by his son, Judas Maccabee, the Jews recapture Jerusalem and restore the desecrated Temple. According to 1 Maccabees 4, an eight day festival was held in the rededicated sanctuary (the word “hanukkah” means “dedication”) and afterwards it was decided that such a festival should be held annually “with joy and gladness” to commemorate the event. I would hazard to guess that most contemporary Jews have never read the Books of the Maccabees (although, if you’d like to, it’s easily available online). And to the extent that we are aware of their content, our knowledge focuses on the opening narratives about the Maccabees restoring the Temple. What most of the Books relate, however, is not the story of a righteous resistance but the growth of an aggressive warrior dynasty which proceeds to conquer as many neighboring territories as possible. If they were around today, we might consider the Maccabees—Jews willing to kill not only Gentile opponents but other Jews with whom they disagreed—to be religious fanatics. It was under the rule of the Maccabees’ descendants that Jews forcibly converted conquered peoples—ironic in light of their earlier struggles against the Greeks doing virtually the same thing.

We may not be familiar with this aspect of the Maccabees but the rabbinic authors of the Talmud certainly were. Those living under Roman rule despised the cruelty of their militarism and political violence. The idea of observing a festival celebrating a martial victory posed a problem. Scholars believe they also had difficulty with a story that, unlike, for example, the Exodus narrative, did not credit God as the main agent of triumph. So they told a short alternative story: The Gemara [Talmud] asks: What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Ta’anit [an ancient list of holidays]: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of Hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

— Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b

The rabbis use the image of light as a metaphor for the spiritual victory of Jewish survival. Just as the oil burned despite the odds, so the Jewish spirit continued despite oppression. This rabbinic preference for spiritual, rather than military, resistance is underlined by the Haftarah reading for the Shabbat during Hanukkah, which includes the line, “Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says Adonai of hosts (Zechariah 4:6).” At key moments throughout our history, Jews have debated these two differing approaches to Jewish survival. Many of us know the story of Masada, where Jewish rebels chose suicide over surrender to the Romans. The Talmud relates a tale with another viewpoint, in which Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai helps the Roman general Vespasian enter Jerusalem in return for the right to establish an academy in the town of Yavneh, where Judaism will continue and grow. Early Zionists were divided over whether it was necessary to have an independent state and an army or whether it was more important to live on the land peacefully without political or military power. Today many American Jews feel threatened in ways we have not previously experienced or expected. Overt antisemitic rhetoric and violence have forced us to reconsider whether we are as safe as we might have thought. Our immediate impulse may be to look to the sword—police, armed guards, locked and even barricaded buildings—but it is important to ask whether and to what extent physical force can ultimately shield us. Yes, there are deterrent measures we can take but we know that if someone is determined to do us harm they can shoot guards, break doors or windows and eventually reach their target. We also lessen our own lives when we blockade ourselves in. The alternative is an expansion of the spirit, an opening up and reaching out that connects us with other vulnerable communities—Muslims, African-Americans, LGBT people, immigrants—who are also under attack. For centuries, Jews were often isolated within the communities in which they lived but that is no longer true. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand, non-Jews came to the vigil held here in Rochester after the Pittsburgh shootings. We can do the work of resisting and overcoming hate in partnership with others. This year as we kindle our Hanukkah candles, increasing the light each evening, let us consider the ways in which we too can experience the miracle of the holiday—hope and love surviving and growing despite fear and hate. With the ancient rabbis we can affirm the power of the spirit.

Rabbi Drorah Setel

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