The miracle of Hanukkah

“What is Hanukkah?”

WE ARE fortunate today: The Soviet Union, which frowned upon all religion and especially Judaism, no longer exists. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
WE ARE fortunate today: The Soviet Union, which frowned upon all religion and especially Judaism, no longer exists.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
I am astonished every time I read the famous baraita in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) that asks the question “What is Hanukkah?”
The question must have been asked sometime in the first or second century of the Common Era, before the final editing of the Mishna. Is it likely that at that time the Sages did not know what Hanukkah really commemorated? That seems unlikely, to put it mildly. All they had to do was read the Books of Maccabees, in which the entire story of the recapture and rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans is described in detail. That was the climax of the rebellion against the Syrian Greeks that succeeded in restoring freedom of religion and the rule of the Torah to the Jewish people.
The answer the Talmud provides – that we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days because of the well-known story of the miraculous cruse of oil that burned for eight days – is equally astonishing, since it does not appear in those books at all. It is made very clear there that Hanukkah – known at first as the Sukkot of the month of Kislev – was the annual celebration of the dedication ceremony, including the rekindling of the Menorah, which was celebrated in a manner similar to Sukkot, since Sukkot was the last festival prior to the recapture and was also the festival on which Solomon had dedicated the First Temple. That explains why it lasted for eight days. True, those books were written in Greek rather than Hebrew and were not considered to be sacred Scripture, but surely they and their contents were well known to the general public.
It has been suggested that the teaching of the Sages reflects their dislike of the Hasmonean dynasty. They wanted to stress something about Hanukkah that was not connected to that dynasty, and so they emphasized some supernatural miracle rather than glorifying the military victory. Possibly, but if so it is strange that they were content to recite the “Al Hanissim” prayer, which begins by referring to Mattathias, the founder of the dynasty, even calling him a High Priest, and describes the military story alone.
Perhaps they were asking what the miracle was that is referred to in that prayer, and were not satisfied simply with the victory and the rededication of the Temple. Possibly, but is it not strange that they ask no similar question about Purim – a holiday that has no miracle mentioned at all and that is based on a book in which the name of God never appears? In any case the story of the miracle never made it into the official liturgy.
THAT STORY may be a charming one, but it should not be allowed to distract us from the real reason we celebrate Hanukkah and what it should mean to us today. Hanukkah is the celebration of the right of the Jewish people to determine its own laws and beliefs without interference from an outside power.
Unlike the story of Purim, Jews under the Greeks were not in danger of being slaughtered and eliminated. Genocide was not the issue, as it was under Haman’s plan, which was no different than that of Hitler. There were martyrs under Greek rule, if the story of Hannah and her sons is to be believed, but they were killed because of their refusal to abandon Judaism and the worship of the Lord, not simply because they were Jews.
What happened to Jews under the Greeks is what happened to them later frequently when the Church attempted to forcibly convert Jews. They would be allowed to live – but only if they gave up their Judaism.
Hanukkah, therefore, is the celebration of religious freedom rather than of the elimination of a threat to our physical existence. But as such it is not limited to Judaism alone. All peoples and all religions have the right to determine their own beliefs and practices, as long as they do not violate basic rules of morality and infringe upon others.
We are fortunate that today religious freedom is taken for granted throughout most of the modern world. The Church is no longer attempting to force Jews to abandon their beliefs. The Soviet Union, which frowned upon all religion and especially Judaism, no longer exists, although China still keeps a tight rein on religion and forbids some practices.
Since it celebrates religious freedom, Hanukkah is not a bad time to remind ourselves that the Jewish world today is a pluralistic one in which there are different groups within Judaism, and that although Israel does not forbid this, it also does not grant equality to these various expressions. They do not enjoy the same rights here that they have in other countries of the free world.
If Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, it must recognize the right of Jewish groups to determine for themselves how they worship. Granting a monopoly to one group alone is an infringement upon the rights of the others. It is absurd that the freedom of religion that Jews enjoy in America or England is not available within the only Jewish state that exists.
Do we need another miracle before equality is granted, or will the government of Israel finally decide to do the right thing? When Israel won the War of Independence, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, it is said, remarked that it could have been won either by a miracle or the natural way. The natural way would have been for God to interfere and bring victory. The miracle would be for the Israeli army to win the war through its own actions. Perhaps the same can be said about the change in the status of Jewish streams in Israel. The natural way would be for God to interfere.
The miracle will be if the Knesset does it on its own.
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Two of his books received the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yedioth Books). His next publication, A Year With the Sages (JPS), will appear in the spring.