Hanukkah: One last taste of sovereignty

We know what sovereignty tastes like. For centuries, Hanukkah kept that taste alive. We never forgot how Jews were meant to live. Hanukkah would not let us forget. 

 BRONZE OIL lamp uncovered in excavations at the City of David, Jerusalem. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
BRONZE OIL lamp uncovered in excavations at the City of David, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

The celebration of Hanukkah is often attributed to the dramatic miracle of the menorah oil. After vanquishing the invading Greek armies, the miracle of the menorah oil signaled Jewish resurgence. Unfortunately, most of the oil in the plundered Temple was vandalized and contaminated by the marauding Greeks. 

The sensational discovery of one unopened and unmarred flask of oil was, itself, cause for great joy. Witnessing a minuscule amount of oil steadily burn for eight days confirmed that even at the tail end of the Second Temple era, God’s supernatural miracles still protected His chosen nation. The “few” had defeated the “many,” and a righteous band of brothers had overcome the invincible northern Greek armies. Overwhelming military might could not defeat the Jewish spirit, and our heroism was embodied in the miracle of the oil. 

Surprisingly, in his initial account of the Hanukkah episode, Maimonides didn’t stress the oil miracle as the primary cause for celebration. After all, many supernatural miracles occurred during the Temple era, yet none of them were enshrined into a week-long festival. There must be something beyond the oil miracle that warrants our national celebration? 

“[As a result of the divinely aided military triumph] Jewish sovereignty was restored for more than 200 years.”

Maimonides

Maimonides provides the answer: “[As a result of the divinely aided military triumph] Jewish sovereignty was restored for more than 200 years.” The Hanukkah victory ended Greek persecution and restored Jewish autonomy. Hanukkah didn’t occur in a “historical vacuum” but instead reshaped Jewish history by restoring our lost sovereignty. 

 CHECKERED CAREER: Coin of Alexander Jannaeus.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) CHECKERED CAREER: Coin of Alexander Jannaeus. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Fallen heroes 

Ironically, the Hanukkah-restored sovereignty during the final two centuries of the Second Temple era was sadly disappointing. Regrettably, the leaders of the Hanukkah uprising quickly fell from grace. The Talmud states that if a person claims to be of Hasmonean descent, he is assumed to be non-pedigreed and is banned from marrying a pedigreed Jew. Within a few generations, the entire Hasmonean dynasty was massacred, and the only surviving members of the household to escape were a few slave hands or maidservants. Since all the pedigreed members of this line were murdered, evidently a person who claims Hasmonean heritage must be a slave.

This cruel outcome was a punishment for their illegal usurpation of the throne. Ideally, Judaism mandates a division between religion and politics, with political authority delegated to the tribe of Judah, while religious ceremonies in the Temple are the province of the house of Levi. A mix of religion and politics is always toxic and never ends well for either. As descendants of Levi, the Hasmonean clan were charged with Temple ceremonies but had absolutely no claim of political power. Since the Hasmoneans usurped the throne and violated this pivotal division within Jewish society, they were annihilated. A heroic band of warriors who had valiantly defended Jerusalem committed a grievous national offense and were practically erased from history. It did not end well for the house of the Hasmonean. 

Furthermore, some of the surviving members of the Hasmonean line were dishonorable figures. John Hyrcanus served as a high priest, ascended the throne in the year 135, and spearheaded great military victories over hostile neighbors. He greatly expanded the borders of Israel, refortified the walls of Yerushalayim and legislated numerous important laws. Yet, sadly, toward the end of his reign, he had a falling out with the Sanhedrin and became a sworn enemy of the rabbinic establishment and a leading member of the notorious Saducee movement. His infamous “late-in-life” desertion became a cautionary metaphor. The Talmud warns “Don’t ever take your faith for granted, even until your last day. After all, even John Hyrcanus deserted our traditions after 80 years of reigning as high priest.” 

John’s son, Alexander Jannaeus, had a similarly checkered career. Having been personally insulted by the Sanhedrin, he murdered 6,000 innocent people and barred pilgrims from entering the Temple. These two leading luminaries of the house of Hasmonean brought disrepute to the family. The heroes of Hanukkah launched a dynasty which betrayed our tradition, murdered innocent people and became embroiled in civil wars. 

Flawed sovereignty 

Not only did the Hanukkah leadership ultimately turn suspect, but the sovereignty we reattained during Hanukkah became severely dented. The 200 intervening years between Hanukkah and the destruction of the Second Temple were possibly one of the most pathetic periods in Jewish history. We were constantly under military threat, always paying tribute to foreign powers. Additionally, that dark period was scarred by endless internecine struggle, as Jewish society splintered into multiple warring factions. Our regained sovereignty was hollowed out by civil war and, eventually, the Second Temple caved in on itself.

Imagine the scene every Yom Kippur. The high priest was summoned by the Sanhedrin and forced to swear that he would not short-circuit the sacred ceremonies of Yom Kippur. More often than not, the high priest was a Saducee sympathizer and would intentionally torpedo these ceremonies. Both the high priest and the Sanhedrin committee shed unhappy tears at a woeful situation in which such doubts were even considered. Life wasn’t heartening in the second half of the Second Temple era. 

Finally, after 200 years of strife and social disunity, the Romans marched into Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, razed the land and renamed our city Aelia Capitolina. The miracle of Hanukkah has absolutely no long-lasting political impact. It is a blip on the radar of history. What sovereignty, exactly, are we celebrating?

Celebrating sovereignty, regardless

Evidently, whenever Jews achieve autonomy and enjoy self-rule, we celebrate and recite Hallel, regardless of the caliber of leadership and independent of the texture of our sovereignty. It is specifically the imperfect nature of the post-Hanukkah sovereignty which makes it so relevant and so contemporary. 

How long have Jews endured persecution, yearning for the day we could live under Jewish rule in a Jewish state? For how many cold Decembers did defenseless Jews endure the inevitable Christmas-time pogroms? How often did we dream of a Jewish army or police force for protection against interminable hostilities? How many centuries did we dream of Jewish government and of carving a society based upon Jewish values? It has now been restored to us, and we celebrate our fortune, despite our imperfect leadership and despite our incomplete sovereignty. It is precisely the flawed nature of the post-Hanukkah sovereignty which makes this holiday so relevant! Hanukkah demands that we appreciate and celebrate any form of Jewish sovereignty. 

The long journey

During the Hanukkah affair thousands of years ago, as the Jews were about to embark upon a long and dark exile, God offered us one last taste of Jewish sovereignty so that we would recognize it when it was ultimately restored to us. He reminded us that Jews are meant to self-govern rather than be subject to the laws of others. Hanukkah taught us that Jews were meant to live securely in their land rather than be precariously hosted in foreign lands. It taught us that Jews were meant to defend their security rather than be vulnerable to the aggression of their many enemies. 

Sovereignty has finally been restored. Hanukkah has once again been renewed. We hope for more, but we rejoice for what has been already achieved. We know what sovereignty tastes like. For centuries, Hanukkah kept that taste alive. We never forgot how Jews were meant to live. Hanukkah would not let us forget. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.