Haredim did not produce the Hanukkah miracle - opinion

The hassidim who kept themselves pure and segregated proved to be a backwater and minor tributary of the river of Jewish history, which flowed on to modern times. 

 MK MOSHE GAFNI rises to voice an objection in the Knesset plenum. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
MK MOSHE GAFNI rises to voice an objection in the Knesset plenum.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Haredi party MKs lashed out at Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana as a Hellenizer for working to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut certification and, reportedly, on conversion. Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) labeled Kahana an “Antiochus.” 

Clearly, the haredi politicians believe that Hanukkah celebrates a victory of the hassidim (of that day), who staunchly upheld the tradition against any change. In this script, the Hellenizers were those who sought to destroy Judaism, starting with small steps. The haredi MKs credit their unyielding predecessors as the heroes of the miraculous victory of “the few over the many.” Let me correct this misinterpretation.

If the Hasmoneans could come back today, they would feel closest to the Modern Orthodox/religious Zionists – particularly those of the old National Religious Party ideology, i.e. committed to political sovereignty as a key enabler of a full religious life, and working with secular or non-observant groups for the benefit of the whole society. While the Hasmoneans protected the hassidim and their right to practice Judaism their way, they conflicted with the hassidim on fundamental issues – including the decision to revolt against the Seleucid monarchy and reestablish an independent Jewish state.

When Antiochus decided to suppress Jewish religion and impose Hellenism by force, he was resisted by two groups. One was the hassidim – the haredi fundamentalists of that day – who refused to obey his decrees.

However, the hassidim believed that the king/ruler was ordained by God. Therefore humans could not revolt and overthrow the tyrant. Rather, they should suffer. They should repent and ask God to remove the ruler who was torturing them. They were steadfastly loyal to the Torah’s dictates and they would express this by being willing to die rather than obey the evil decrees.

 Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The Hasmoneans were loyal to the Torah. But many of their people had been exposed to Hellenism and learned from it. This included appreciating the importance of sovereignty and a greater, more activist role for humans in political life. To put this in religious terms, the Maccabees believed that the human partners in the covenant (i.e., the Jews) should take on greater responsibility. If the king persecuted the Jews and was determined to destroy the religion, this should not be accepted as a Divine decree. 

The only way to stop Antiochus was to fight back and win freedom to observe the Torah by achieving independence. (When the Maccabees rebelled, a fraction of the hassidim joined them. Most stood by ready for martyrdom but refused to revolt.) 

The book of I Maccabees tells of another fundamental split between the Hasmoneans and the hassidim. It tells (2:29-41) that the Hellenist army surrounded a group of hassidim on Shabbat demanding that they surrender and accept the king’s decrees. They refused to yield – but they also refused to fight on Shabbat. Since God had commanded the observance of Shabbat, they were prepared to die rather than do labor (such as fighting) on this day. The Hellenists slaughtered the entire group. 

The Hasmoneans understood that the Greek army would wipe them out unless they fought back on Shabbat, so they decided to fight. There is a deeper religious issue between the two groups. For the hassidim, Shabbat was a divine decree which must be observed. If the only way to observe Shabbat was to be a martyr, then so be it. 

In the Talmud (Yoma 85a,b), the Rabbis articulated their religious understanding. The Torah was given by God to benefit humans and enrich their lives. The Torah’s commands were not simply to be obeyed for the sake of obedience. The commandments were given “so the human being would do them and live by them (Leviticus 18:1). Except for three mitzvot (out of 613) every other mitzvah – including Shabbat – is to be overruled – better, put aside for the moment – for the sake of life.

Note that the Hasmonean/rabbis’ ability to valorize the mitzvah of life-saving over other commandments also reflects learning from the insights of Hellenist culture in philosophic analysis and deep reading of texts. For the hassidim, all the texts and commandments were undifferentiated and equally authoritative. 

For them, the acts of war on Shabbat constituted sinful violations of the sabbatical rules. For the Hasmoneans/rabbis, self-defense was a higher level of redirection of behavior on Shabbat, in order to uphold the Torah’s supreme value – the sanctity of life. (This view won out in the development of Jewish tradition.)

THE HASMONEANS built a coalition which included some hassidim, and some Hellenizers who drew the line at crushing and killing their fellow Jews. The coalition fought and won the war. The Maccabees renewed the desecrated Temple and decreed the Hanukkah celebration in the face of fierce hassidic opposition. 

The hassidim/haredim insisted that God would deliver a miraculous Temple from heaven, and that humans should not take it on themselves to rededicate the Temple. Nor was it appropriate to declare a sacred holiday to mark the victory of their day. Only the great redemptive events of the past as listed in the Torah were worthy of being marked in the religious calendar – such as Passover or Sukkot. 

Having won the war for independence, and established a new holiday, the Hasmoneans used their Greek knowledge and contacts to run their government and to pursue diplomatic relations with the ongoing Seleucid and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) empires – and to maneuver between the warring factions of the Seleucid empire in order to maintain Judea’s independence.

The hassidim mostly withdrew in this phase. Once the religious persecution stopped, they did not care much about political sovereignty. They also avoided participation in the government because they feared exposure to Hellenism and rejected the use of Hellenism required for governing.

The additional century of independent sovereignty that the Hasmoneans won enabled the deepening and development of Judaism. This growth enabled the community to sustain the devastating shock of the destruction of the Temple, loss of access to Jerusalem and exile for many Jews. 

There was indeed a price in assimilation or even slighting of Jewish tradition in the ongoing Hasmonean pursuit of government. Eventually, the dynasty fell apart and the Romans were brought in. They took over and turned Judea into a satellite state. Nevertheless, the Hasmoneans had saved Judaism. Under the later rabbinic leadership, the Torah became a faith and way of life strong enough to survive two millennia of exile and powerlessness. 

The Hasmoneans who got their hands dirty proved to be the channel of transmission and continuity that assured the Jewish future. The hassidim who kept themselves pure and segregated proved to be a backwater and minor tributary of the river of Jewish history, which flowed on to modern times. 

Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, again a minority revolted against Jewish powerlessness in exile and returned to the Land of Israel. Again, modern culture was drawn upon, and parts integrated in the renaissance of Jewish life that culminated in the State of Israel. 

The spiritual heirs of the hassidim – the haredim – again mostly stood by (or opposed) the process of reconstruction, albeit they ended up benefiting greatly from it. If the majority of Jewry had not borrowed from modernity and gotten its hands dirty, then we would have no Hanukkah today – and no Jewish state – and no future. 

The writer is president of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life and senior scholar in residence at the Hadar Institute of New York and Jerusalem.