A MAN lights a hanukkia in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
‘Have any of you heard,” I asked the youngsters in my afternoon Hebrew school class in America some years ago, “about a mysterious, magical man who turns up just at the right moment to save the day?” Several of the youngsters shouted out excitedly, “Santa Claus!” Not the answer I was looking for, of course, but a perfect manifestation of the “December dilemma” that confronted – and still confronts – Diaspora Jewish communities each winter.
For several weeks, Jews and their Christian counterparts slug it out as to which holiday – Hanukka or Christmas – takes the (fruit) cake.
There is the annual light show. We put our little hanukkiot in our windows and light giant hanukkiot in public squares; they light up their homes and department stores with massive pyrotechnics and Nativity scenes. We have our eight days of giving gelt and gifts; they trump that with 12 days of Christmas (though I’ve always questioned how thrilled kids could be to receive a partridge in a pear tree). We spin dreidels and munch on latkes while singing Maoz Tzur; they decorate a tree and feast on massive banquets while crooning carols.
What a relief it is here in Israel not to have to engage in this annual competition – reason number 7,652 to make aliya. But beyond the superficial glitter and glow, Hanukka has a deep dimension – one that perfectly suits our times – that presents its own unique dilemma.
The Jews who fought Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks some 2,200 years ago, ultimately repelling them and rededicating the Holy Temple, actually waged not one but two distinct wars.
The first was not against the Syrian Greeks at all. It was a civil war, Jew vs. Jew, as the Maccabees, as they came to be called, struggled to eliminate Israel’s Hellenist elements, which had succumbed to Greek mores. The first “shot” of the conflict, in fact, came when High Priest Mattathias slew a Jew who had brought a pig on the altar as an offering to Zeus. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah (the Hammer) Maccabee, then led the struggle – in decidedly non-pluralistic fashion – to “purify” the nation from foreign domination, both cultural and political.
Our liturgy’s description of the war as being “the few against the many” alludes to the fact that not all of the Jews were “on board” in this battle. Many still harbored Hellenistic sympathies and so had to be marginalized. The primary symbol of Hanukka – the small, untainted cruse of pure oil that miraculously kept the Temple’s menorah alight for eight days – symbolized the victory of those who held on to traditional values and succeeded in vanquishing both the Syrian-Greeks and their “unenlightened” co-religionists who had come to reject the basic tenets of Jewish faith.
Fast-forward now to today. We in Israel, alas, are still fighting on two fronts. We are surrounded by hostile Arab/Muslim neighbors – both external and internal – who have never come to terms with a Jewish state in their midst. At the same time, we find ourselves continually at odds with fellow Jews, both locally and internationally, who are scattered across the ideological and religious spectrum, perpetually attacking the Israeli establishment for the policies and positions it takes on a wide range of subjects. For some, we are too committed to tradition, adhering to the status quo at the Kotel or allowing life cycle events to be presided over exclusively by the rabbinate. For others, we are not strict enough, sacrificing Shabbat for more efficient rail travel, advancing gay and lesbian rights or furthering the role of women in combat.
The recent flap over remarks by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – every word of which was eminently sensible, in my opinion – touched a raw nerve among American Jews, who sincerely believe that they should have a say over how we conduct our affairs, without actually living here – many without ever having stepped foot on Israeli soil.
It is imperative that we come to a meeting of the minds, for that, too, is a less-joyous legacy of the Hanukka story.
For while the Hasmoneans did indeed succeed in recapturing the Temple and regaining our independence – establishing their own royal dynasty for a century – it was a short-lived victory. All of the Maccabee brothers would die a violent death. They would be supplanted by the Herodian dynasty, which ultimately gave way to dominance by the Romans, who would send us into a 2,000-year exile.
Imposing Maccabean will by force alone, rather than reaching national consensus in a more brotherly fashion, exacted a heavy price.
Hanukka, in its message of how divine guidance and mortal acts of courage can operate in tandem, implores us to work together to spread light and dispel darkness. It encourages us to struggle to somehow find that elusive light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s just hope that light isn’t coming from the runaway train of disunity headed directly toward us. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org