On zealousness, peace and Hanukkah

Zealotry and fundamentalism are among the greatest dangers to modern society.

Peter Paul Rubens: The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, 1634-1636 (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Peter Paul Rubens: The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, 1634-1636
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
If we were to restage the story of the victory of the Hasmoneans today, we would probably have to categorize the Hasmoneans as a group of extreme fundamentalist freedom fighters. Most of us probably feel very uncomfortable and distressed when reading the following reaction of Matityahu to a Hellenist Jew: “A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modi’in according to the king’s command. When Matityahu saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar... Then Matityahu cried out in the city in with a loud voice, saying: “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come with me!”” (Maccabees I, Chapter 2: 23-24, 27)
Zealotry and fundamentalism are among the greatest dangers to modern society. We are shocked to hear about acts of antisemitism, terrorism and hatred taking place in various parts of the world, against both Jews and non-Jews. Unfortunately, we sometimes also encounter the phenomena of zealotry and fundamentalism among Jews. How can we celebrate Hanukkah today while ignoring this problematic aspect of the victory of the Maccabees?
It seems to me that the rabbis recognized the unsettling nature of the war between the Hellenistic Jews and the Maccabees, and therefore chose to divert our attention from the military victory to the miracle of the jar of oil, which was completely unnecessary.
It would not have mattered if the Maccabees had waited another week to produce pure oil.  After all, the worship in the Temple had been already cancelled and the Menorah had not been lit for a long time. Moreover, a simple halachic solution could have been found to allow the use of unclean oil, because there is a principle that ritual impurity can be overlooked in cases involving public benefit.
Despite the superfluity of the oil miracle, when the rabbis asked, “What is the essence of the celebration?” they gave a very clear and unequivocal answer: “When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oil jars that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one jar of oil with the seal of the High Priest. And there was [sufficient oil] to light for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight days. The next year the Rabbis instituted those days and made them holidays with a recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.” (Gemara Shabbat 21b) The reason for the celebration was based on the miracle of the jug of oil, and hence the main mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light candles.
Lighting a candle in our tradition symbolizes peace. According to the rabbis, the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles is designed to increase peace in the home and within the family. Aharon HaCohen, who was in charge of lighting the Menorah in the Mishkan, is of the archetype of a man of peace: “Hillel used to say: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12) Apparently, this was the intention of the rabbis. They turned the historical story of fanaticism into a message of peace by emphasizing the miracle of the jar of oil and the commandment to light Hanukkah candles.
They did not want to focus on fanaticism, and so they re-framed the story as a story of light, love and peace.
Matityahu in his zealous speech cited above mentioned Pinchas as his inspiration. Pinchas acted with zeal in his reaction to the public adultery of the prince of the tribe of Shimon with the daughter of the Midianite king.
Interestingly, the Torah does not idealize the zealous act of Pinchas, although it was necessary at the time. In fact, the blessing that Pinchas receives is a “covenant of peace,” which is intended as the cure to his zealousness.
It is important to understand that without the zealousness of the Hasmoneans, the revolt against the Greeks would not have succeeded. We celebrate the victory of the Maccabees and remember them only for good, but at the same time, we do not idealize their religious zealousness and make them our role models.
The eternal message of Hanukkah is that there is an alternative to fanaticism and extremism - an alternative of light and peace. Judaism is a religion of anti-zealotry, and the examples of zealousness in our history are the exceptions that prove this rule.
Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook wrote about Hanukkah: “And the essence of the blessings is the blessing of peace, and it will prevail in the future, as the recognition will spread that all the different lights [of the Menorah, which represent different views and opinions] are in essence intertwined into one candle.” (Olat Reiyah I 435)
The writer, formerly the rabbi of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is the author of ‘The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age,’ published in 2020 by Urim Publications