Thursday, December 8, 2011

Perpetuating the Myth or Recasting Chanukah

Every year as Cheshvon slides into Kislev I begin again pondering the meaning of the Chanukah story, its legacy, what we should be taking away from the story and its celebration. Insight and understanding change over the years, depending on perspective and context but what has been consistent over the years is my reluctance to accept the miracle of the oil as the prima facie reason for celebrating Chanukah. According to the story, the rebelling party under the flag of Judah the Maccabee having restored the Temple to its previous sanctity weren't successful in finding a significant supply of uncontaminated sacramental pure oil to light the Menorah for more than one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for a week; thus celebrating this miracle and the rededication of the Temple. In Judaism there are no true miracles other than events that happen in nature but out of time sequence. Jesus walking on water has about as much currency as a one-day supply of oil turning into an eight-day supply.

As a matter of fact there are no primary sources in our cannon referencing the oil story other than a brief tertiary source: a Talmudic reference with the classic argument between Hillel and Shamai as to how we light the Menorah. The only reliable primary source is the Book of Maccabees I rendered illegitimate by those who canonized our sacred texts. Naturally the Talmudic reference to the story is suspect because of the pharisaic political ax to grind with the Sadducees. It is for this reason as well that R' Yochanan Ben Zachai conveniently excluded the Book of Maccabees I from inclusion into the canon.

Simply put, the Pharisees and their exponent, rabbinic Judaism refused to credit the Sadducees with any relevance. In effect the intention of the rabbis and Sages was to write out of history the important contributions the Sadducees made towards the development of the Jewish people. The Talmudic version of Chanukah was no more than a ruse to thwart attention away from the Sadducees and to give undue credit to the Pharisees in their fight against the Greeks. The Book of the Maccabees l, however tells the true story. It is an accurate account (as accurate as possible) of the fighting and the history of the period, never, however, mentioning God or the sanctity of the battle. In a sense it is similar to the notable battles fought in Israel in the modern period. There may be those who feel comfortable ascribing our victories to god and the effort of yeshiva students learning and praying. The preponderance of Jews however would ascribe the victory to the power of the IDF, the superb training of its soldiers and its legendary acumen in field improvisation as well as maximizing the uses of equipment, and perhaps its ally, the United States.

The unvarnished story of Chanukah is a story about the military victory of the Hashmonayim against the occupying power, an empire that swallowed up Judea. The Hashmonayim were an amalgam of Sadducees, the priestly class and Pharisees who initially wouldn't take up arms on Shabbat because of the injunction against hill Shabbat. It was the Pharisees who were commingled with the Sadducees in the fight against the Greeks that decided to continue the good fight on Shabbat due to pichuach nefesh (mortal danger), the same rabbinical dispensation used today by the IDF; nationally security trumps Shabbat observance.

The Pharisees had another problem as well. There were many Jews who adopted the celebration of lights, imported and popularized by the Greeks to celebrate the winter solstice. Sounds familiar? The Pharisees the forerunners to rabbinic Judaism ingeniously incorporated the lights into the Chanukah story, thus co-opting Jews into a massive celebration and at the same time cutting the legs out from under their rivals, the Sadducees (Constantine did the same thing by incorporating the pagan Christmas tree into Christmas celebration thereby co-opting the pagans). This technique was used as well by them when they incorporated the notion of the “world to come” (olam haba). By so doing they were able to recruit more conscripts to their cause by promising them a reward greater than any other.

So where does this leave us on the eve of Chanukah when we prepare to light the candles and celebrate the miracle of the oil? And what about our children. Do we perpetuate the myth? How ought we approach this holiday? Should we approach it the same way we celebrate the miracle of the Six Day War?

Initially the aftermath of the Six Day War was accompanied by a national euphoria. More than that Jews from all over the works were able to lift their heads high for the first time ever with pride in being Jewish and part of something much bigger than them. But the euphoria slowly began to ebb and the realization set in that perhaps we need to address the repression of the Palestinians. We didn't do enough then nor have we done enough since. The Chanukah story too, was initially accompanied with great euphoria, but not enough attention was placed upon tolerance of - namely Jews who sought to live within a broader culture context, which was anathema to the Hashmonayim. These weren't tolerated and children were circumcised with or without parental permission.

This kanaut, zealotry, a thread running throughout our history must be in our DNA because today, as I right this I am witness unfortunately to intolerance once again in Israel. Making a bracha on the Chanukah is a bracha l 'vatalah (for naught) if we can accept the teachings of Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel Elyahu who believes that Jews should drive Arabs out of Akko or that of another illustrious rabbi Eliezer Melamed who want the Christians expelled from Har Beracha who said that "when we came to live in a religious community, we never imagined that one of these days we would be forced to live alongside people of a different religion, which doesn't match our faith and lifestyle." Sounds like nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Painful and disconcerting. Perhaps we should perpetuate the myth.