Hanukka in a Subatomic Particle Accelerator

From my office window I have an incredible view of the Old City of Jerusalem that has forever shaped the Jewish people and Jewish history. But this Hanukka, as I catch my morning glimpse of the Temple Mount, my awe morphs into an unsettling anxiety.

What is the miracle of Hanukka, anyway? Is it the miracle of light,when one small vessel of pure oil lasted eight nights? Or is it about themilitary victory of a small band of Jews who prevailed over the overwhelming army of the Seleucid Greek Empire? The first time we read about the miracle of light is in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b-22a. Here the rabbis ask,“mai Hanukka?” “What is Hanukka?” But before the rabbis even finish this question, they are ready with the answer. The heavy-handed narrative of Hanukka in the Talmud makes it abundantly clear that some of these authors and redactors had a lot invested in propagating the idea that “the miracle” was, indeed, the miracle of light. Butthe miracle of light is nowhere to be found in the Book of Maccabees, which was written in the 2nd century BCE – hundreds of years before we ever read about the light in the Talmud. So why would the Talmud favor a miracle about light over the military victory?

I have a theory. (Actually, it’s Yehoshafat Harkabi’s theory, but it is atheory.) Maybe the rabbis also had an incredible view of Jerusalem. And maybe when they looked at the Temple Mount during Hanukka, they remembered that the Jewish people has always been divided and thought about how and why the Temple was destroyed. After all, the rabbis knew their history and understood that the Jewish Zealots’ refusal to compromise with the Romans lead to a disastrous war; in 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed and Jewish sovereignty was lost for 2,000 years.  

If the First Jewish War were not traumatic enough, the lesson from the Second Jewish War waged against the Romans 65 years later, in 135 CE, under the leadership of Bar Kokhba brought an even more painful lesson. In the Second Jewish War, the Jews suffered such a cruel defeat that they became a minority in their own country and the Jewish people almost came to an end; the Romans razed Jerusalem, renaming it Aelia Capitolena, and, adding insult to injury, they renamed Judea, calling it Palestina. Taking these disastrous lessons to heart, the rabbis told the people, “Boys, no more fighting” and made sure that the people would always be afraid of ill-prepared, irrational military ventures, zealots and zealotry, fanatics and fanaticism. The rabbis were petrified that the burning zeal and fanaticism of Pinchas and Mattathias would only lead to our own destruction. And when they looked at the Hasmonean dynasty, heirs to the Maccabees, they saw even more corruption and disaster. This is why we find passages in the Babylonian Talmud like Tractate Ketuboth 110B-111A, which implore the Jewish people to be bound by three conditions:

1. Not to move back to the Land of Israel in a massive immigration;

2. Not to rebel or take up arms against the nations of the world;

3.That the nations of the world will not oppress Israel too much.

But times changed and the constraining textual apparatus created by the rabbis to contain Jewish national aspirations came crumbling down with Zionist revolution. Suddenly the Maccabees were heroes. Jewish judo strikes again. Zionism flipped the rabbinic narrative. The miracle was no longer one of light; it was the miracle of the military victory. If you live in Israel and have any doubts – just check out the names of sports teams, one of the largest national healthcare providers or the beer you drink.

It was the Zionists who wrote the Hanukka song that we all sing (in Who can retell the things that befell us / Who can count them? Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band / But now all Israel must as   “goel ha’amwhich does not translate well is A powerful polemic against traditional Judaism, ” that will redeem us.

And so, to mix a reference, why is this Hanukka different than all other Hanukkas? Lately I have come to feel as if the Jewish world with all of its broad and diverse narratives, from assimilation to ultra- Orthodoxy and everything in between, has been thrown into a subatomic particle accelerator. Ultra-Orthodox fanatics claim they have a monopoly on the “light of God.” Jewish Nationalist zealots refuse to listen to any form of compromise. Our own current version of Greek wisdom plays out in an alarming rate of assimilation. The fabric of the Jewish people is being stretched; it is as though the Jewish world has moved from “post-modern” to “post-denominational” to simply “post-rational.” This Hanukka, balancing light with power will require a lot of work because miracles do not happen every day.

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