Rabbi Jellinek’s Hanukkah problem

Not even a million Maccabees, according to Jellinek, could bring the Messiah!

THE HANUKKIAH at the Western Wall is lit on the fifth night of Hanukkah in 2009. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
THE HANUKKIAH at the Western Wall is lit on the fifth night of Hanukkah in 2009.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
The modern revival of Hanukkah as a holiday celebrating Jewish national liberation angered Rabbi Dr. Adolf Jellinek.
He officiated in Vienna in the second half of the 19th century and was the most celebrated Jewish preacher of his day. Jellinek was a scholar who wrote prolifically on midrash, the Kabbalah and medieval Jewish philosophy. He was a fierce advocate of Jewish emancipation in Europe and believed that Jews were not a national entity. Judaism was solely a religion. He was a loyal citizen of the Hapsburg Empire. The rise of modern Zionism alarmed him.
Of course, he would object to the movement’s celebration of a rabbinic minor holiday as a watershed in the history of the Jewish people and their sovereignty in the Land of Israel. It went against all he held dear.
The best presentation that I have read of Rabbi Jellinek’s confrontation with the Zionists in Vienna, especially focusing on the Hanukkah issue, is in an essay by master historian Robert S. Wistrich, which is in the anthology Zionism and Religion (1998). In “Zionism and Its Religious Critics in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna,” Wistrich quotes Preacher Jellinek rejecting the idea of the Jews as a nation: “We are Germans, Frenchmen, Magyars, Italians, and so forth, with every fiber of our being. We have long ceased to be true, thoroughbred Semites, and we have long ago lost the sense of Hebrew nationality.”
Hanukkah as imagined by the Zionists offended Jellinek’s faith in the success of the emancipation of the Jews of Europe. The Kadimah Zionist organization at Vienna University – founded by Nathan Birnbaum, who coined the term “Zionism” and later abandoned the movement for the Orthodox Agudas Yisroel – particularly aroused Jellinek’s ire. Wistrich writes about Kadimah that they celebrated the Maccabees “for having conducted a liberation struggle against foreign oppression and for their military valor, their self-sacrificing idealism, and their uncompromising defense of Jewish national identity.”
The Preacher Jellinek considered this rhetoric as “neo-pagan,” making the prowess of war a form of idol worship. For many Jews, the focus was on the miracles and religious freedom of the holiday. The cult of the military and victory in battle, for Jellinek, was “profoundly un-Jewish.”
To assert Jewish nationalism was to abandon the universal mission of Judaism, which was to usher in an epoch of global peace and brotherhood with the Jews leading the way. Narrow tribalism, in the preacher’s eyes, gave a this-worldly interpretation of a messianic idea that would only arrive at the end of history.
Of course, the preacher was also concerned with charges of Jewish dual loyalty. There could be no Jewish nation to challenge loyalty to the Hapsburgs.
In December 1891, Kadimah held its annual celebration of Hanukkah. Jellinek responded (as quoted by Wistrich):  “There is no Jewish nation. The Jews form, it is true, a separate stock, a special religious community. They should cultivate the ancient Hebrew language, study their rich literature, know their history, cherish their faith, and make the greatest sacrifices for it; they should hope and trust in the wisdom of divine providence, the promises of their prophets, and the development of humankind so that the sublime ideas and truths of Judaism may gain the day. But for the rest, they should amalgamate with those nations whose citizens they are, fight in their battles, and promote their institutions for the welfare of the whole.”
Not even a million Maccabees, according to Jellinek, could bring the Messiah!
The tragedy is that Jellinek was an idealist on the wrong side of history. Those who followed him and rejected Zionism would be destroyed by the Germans and their European collaborators.
Yet, the preacher was not off the mark in some of his criticisms of Kadimah and their concept of Hanukkah. Yes, Jews going back to ancient times were great warriors and valued as mercenaries – but there is a universal aspect that can’t be ignored in biblical texts and Jewish theology. The extremism of M.J. Berdichevski – that religion weakened the Jews and there needed to be a return to the warrior ways of old – ignores 2,000 years of Jewish history.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who surrendered to Rome, saved Judaism. The Jewish zealots were dealt a crushing blow in an impossible war of a small people in population against an empire. Without those years in the Diaspora there would be no Jewish state. Jewish law united a people dispersed all over the globe and maintained the unity necessary for a return to the Land of Israel.
As for the Maccabees, Jellinek is partially right that they were neo-pagan after the death of Judah, Jonathan and Simon. There was some political success but there was hiring of Greek mercenaries into the Jewish army and eventually there was also a Jewish civil war. The Romans took advantage of this and the Maccabee (Hasmonean) kingdom declined and Jews lost their sovereignty over the Land of Israel.
Yet, Preacher Rabbi Jellinek’s opposition to the Zionist understanding of Hanukkah undermined a corrective that was critical after 2,000 years. There will always be time for miracles and for freedom to follow the Jewish faith.
But Kadimah got it right: we had to rediscover the fighting spirit within us, reassert our identity as a nation at a time of nation-states emerging, and reassert our true identity as a people. What is left of Jellinek’s emancipated Jewish Vienna?
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.