Hanukkah celebrates victory in struggle to maintain Judaism - opinion

Facing existential threats of annihilation led by Iran, other Muslim countries, terrorism and the Islamic movement, we ask the same questions that our ancestors asked: How can we survive?

 A HANUKKAH MENORAH on display at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
A HANUKKAH MENORAH on display at the Western Wall.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

At the end of the Second Temple period, Jews struggled against the influence of Hellenism and the cultures and armies of Greece and Rome. They struggled to maintain Judaism and Jewish values and to preserve their independence as a nation-state in Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. Their struggle was not only against external enemies but also internal divisions in a society divided among religious and political factions. They had a Temple, the focus of religious inspiration – at least for many – wise rabbinic authorities, a thriving economy and a powerful army. What happened?

As noted in the ArtScroll book, Chanukah: Its History, Observance, And Significance, “the famous ‘miracle of the lights,’ when a one-day supply of pure olive oil burned for eight days, took place three years after the beginning of the Hasmonean revolt. That is the only miracle that the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) mentions in its brief description of the Hanukkah events. The Al HaNissim liturgy, however, which recounts the festival’s origin and which is inserted into the Hanukkah prayers, tells a different story. There, the eight-day miracle of the oil is not even mentioned. There, the emphasis is on the miracles of the military triumph.”

Rabbi Dr. Shubert Spero, in his book Holocaust and Return to Zion, writes that Hanukkah is “about the condition of basic unity and fraternity of Jewish society during the first century CE. The rabbis were referring to the disintegration of the Jewish people in Judea into a cluster of warring and bickering sects, of which Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and New Christians were only the major ones.

“These religious and political divisions were the background for the unjustified hatred that destroyed the national unity of the Jewish people. There no longer was a common purpose or a felt mutual responsibility to support a national Jewish polity. This was the underlying cause of the disaster.”

The struggle for Judaism and political independence which we celebrate on Hanukkah by lighting oil-lights, as our ancestors did, must therefore be seen in the context of war. The oil-lights or candles which represent our spiritual inspiration are shadowed by our current challenges: growing isolation by the international community, demands for a Palestinian state, Jewish sovereignty and democracy. Our ancestors had it easier; they did not have to contend with TV, cell phones, magazines, hostile media, the Internet and social media.

 RABBI YEHUDA Teichtal and German Health Minister Jens Spahn at a Hanukkah ceremony last year in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS) RABBI YEHUDA Teichtal and German Health Minister Jens Spahn at a Hanukkah ceremony last year in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. (credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS)

FACING THE existential threat of annihilation led by Iran, other Muslim countries, terrorism and the Islamic movement, we ask the same questions that our ancestors asked: How can we survive? How can we unify against our enemies? And for us, the generation after the Holocaust in Europe, are we facing a second Holocaust?

This question is complicated because, although we have a state, critics of Israeli policies accuse it of “occupying Palestinian territory,” racism and apartheid. Many in our government opposed Jewish communities which were built in Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan. Our Jewish army and police destroy Jewish homes and “hilltop” communities. Former IDF officers, academics and pundits call for “ending the occupation”; Arabs support avenging the “Nakba,” their loss of the war in 1948 to destroy the State of Israel, and also demand for the “right of return.”

Hanukkah reminds us that the issue of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael cannot be taken for granted. Lighting oil-lights and candles as a sign of commitment to Judaism is linked to Israel’s survival as the Jewish nation. The Hasmonean revolt against Greek and Roman domination was successful, but only briefly.

Israel’s sovereignty and independence are fragile and require the consent of foreign powers and the support of Jewish communities throughout the world and in Israel. Attempts to achieve a peaceful coexistence with Palestinian Arabs and the Muslim world have failed. Supported by European countries, Palestinian terrorist organizations continue to threaten Jews in Israel and around the world. This is the reality.

Lighting oil-lights and candles, therefore, requires a commitment to Zionism, which makes Eretz Yisrael the homeland of the Jewish people. It requires an awareness of what the Temple Mount means and why the Temple was built there. That is why Jews pray toward the Temple Mount. It is not only a religious obligation but is connected to Jewish history. Lighting oil-lamps and candles reenact the rededication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans. When we light our menorah it is in memory of the kohanim who lit the menorah that was on the Temple Mount.

It is a rededication to the faith, principle and practice that God and history demand that the Land of Israel must be under the sovereignty of the people of Israel.

Lighting our menorah at home with our family, we should imagine that we are standing before the menorah that was on the Temple Mount. May we all experience a sense of renewal and rededication – and the audacity of being Jewish.

The author is a PhD historian and journalist in Jerusalem.