The mir­a­cle of Hanukkah

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - REU­VEN HAM­MER 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 b

Iam 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. ■

Hanukkah is the cel­e­bra­tion of the right of the Jewish peo­ple to de­ter­mine its own laws and be­liefs with­out in­ter­fer­ence from an out­side power


WE ARE for­tu­nate to­day: The Soviet Union, which frowned upon all re­li­gion and es­pe­cially Ju­daism, no longer ex­ists.

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