A Dose of Nuance: When light is simply not enough

Hanukka is a festival that reminds us that when freedom is challenged, it needs to be defended.

A young girl lights a hanukkia (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A young girl lights a hanukkia
The City of Lights has gone dark, again. Bathing the Eiffel Tower in blue, white and red, as the French have, is an instinctive response to the darkness that now engulfs Europe. Light to stare down the darkness. Because everything enlightened will be targeted, the savages have warned. The magazine Charlie Hebdo, because it stood for free thinking, for enlightenment, even humor.
And now, the city as a whole – because Paris is not only the city of light. It is the city of life.
In this age of overwhelming darkness, when it is not year clear that the West has the will to survive, it will be said that Hanukka’s timing is perfect. The “holiday of light” in a time of heavy darkness. “Ma’alin bakodesh [we increase in matters of holiness]” as we add a candle each night, rather than count down from eight to one. Light for its own sake, as we kindle candles we are not permitted to use for anything else. Light, it will be said, is what Jews do when we are enveloped by darkness. While we celebrate the miracle of the oil, what we need now, more than ever, is a miracle of unexpected light.
Forgive me if I dissent. There are two classic narratives of what Hanukka is about, and this year, I suggest we soft-pedal the miracle. Yes, the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) relates, in a very well-known passage, that the reason for the Hanukka is the miracle of the oil. And that, of course, is why the holiday lasts for eight days.
That’s not the only way to tell the story, though. The Book of Maccabees, which did not make it into the Jewish Bible but is part of the Catholic canon, has an entirely different explanation for why Hanukka lasts eight days. When Succot fell during the year of the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks (the Seleucids, actually), the battles were raging. There was no way to pause the fighting to celebrate Succot, so after the victory, even if somewhat belatedly, the Maccabees celebrated an eight-day holiday in the month of Kislev. That, says the Book of Maccabees, is why we are about to have an eight-day festival.
Two radically different accounts of Hanukka. According to the Talmud, eight days was the amount of time the cruse of oil burned. According to Maccabees, the eight days were modeled after Succot. As the Talmud tells the story, the true significance of the holiday lies in the miracle of oil. But no miracle of oil is mentioned in that Maccabees passage about why Hanukka lasts eight days. Hanukka, Maccabees maintains, was a holiday to celebrate a bloody but successful military campaign.
This year, especially in this era of darkness, there is going to be a tendency to tell the story of Hanukka as a story of imposing light on darkness.
That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Hanukka is a festival that reminds us that when freedom is challenged, it needs to be defended. It is a holiday that reminds us that when the Greeks were determined to exterminate Jewish religious life, the only way to prevent that was to fight them to the bitter end.
Hanukka is a reminder that even after the harshest of the Greek decrees, most Jews did not want to fight. They were so taken with Greek culture that the last thing that they wanted was to battle it. Perhaps they were afraid. Or they thought they would lose. Were it not for a small band of Hasmoneans who took up the fight, the story has it, things might have turned out very differently.
This year, I posit, it would be dangerous to focus mostly on miracles. We need them, yes, but we dare not wait for them. There is a fight to be waged, and today, as then, there are many Jews who do not wish to wage it. They are too deeply taken with the prevailing culture (characterized by the notion that, as US Secretary of State John Kerry put it so subtly and thoughtfully, “It has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism – I mean, you name it.”) Or they are afraid of the price we will have to pay. Or they are afraid that if we fight, we will lose.
We will not lose if we understand that what we are doing is defending the very values that make life worth living. We will win, as long as we recall that were we to lose, there would be no point inhabiting this planet. We will win if we recall that the alternative is beheadings, mass rape, murder of “infidels” and a joyless, lightless existence.
In January 1946, establishing a Jewish state seemed virtually impossible. But the Yishuv kept on, and the Irgun Zva’i Leumi fought until the British were gone. In early November 1947, it did not appear that the Partition Plan was going to pass, but Zionist diplomats worked around the clock, and it did. In May 1967, there was no way to imagine that Israel was about to triple its size.
The only battles we have to lose are those we refuse to fight.
Classic Zionism made that point by rejecting Jewish religious tradition.
“No miracle occurred for us; no cruse of oil did we find; we hacked away at the stone until we bled – and then there was light” says “We Carry Torches,” that old Zionist song that rejected the Talmud’s rendition of Hanukka.
Today, thankfully, that Zionist rejection of religion has softened. Today, we need not choose between the fight and the light, between the need to battle and the possibility of miracles. Yet we dare not hide behind a certainty that miracles will save us. The risks are too great, the enemy too close, the darkness too dense.
This year, Hanukka demands naming savagery when we see it. This year, it means naming the enemy we know is determined to destroy us. This year, as we light candles, we must pledge to take the fight to those who would eradicate everything we stand for – wherever they may be and for however long it takes.
That is not the Hanukka on which most of us were raised. Yet if our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are to celebrate Hanukka in this place a few generations from now, it is the fight and not the light on which we must dwell.
This year, a mere celebration of miracles is too dangerous for us. This year, the Hanukka festival must serve as a reminder that we are here because we fought – even if “we” was only a small minority who cared enough to try to survive.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.