Monday, December 7, 2015

Hanukkah: From Maccabees to Allenby with Optimism and Faith

On November 2, 1917, Lord Balfour made his famous declaration in a letter to Lord Rothschild:
Foreign Office
November 2, 1917 
Dear Lord Rothschild:  
.... His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour 
Nine days later, November 11, 1917, the British General Allenby entered Jerusalem and ended more than 400 years of Ottoman rule in the city. Hanukkah fell on November 27 that year. In Cincinnati, at any rate, Allenby was viewed as a redeemer of the Jewish state on par with Judah Maccabee. Today there are major boulevards named after Allenby in Tel Aviv and Haifa; there's a monument in Beersheba; a town square in his honor in Jerusalem, and the main border crossing from the West Bank to Jordan is at the Allenby bridge.

General Allenby, Jerusalem, November 1917
Thirty years on, the Jews were less favorably disposed to the British. On July 22, 1946 Menachim Begin and his Irgun blew up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel in a terrorist act that killed 91 and injured another 41. But the hope expressed in the poster above came true on May 14, 1948: there was again a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine, the first time since the Hasmonean dynasty, which followed the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE.

The story of Hanukkah comes from the apocryphal book of Maccabees I. Antiochus IV, the Saleucid ruler (heir to Alexander the Great) established Zeus as the deity to be worshipped in the temple. There were many Jews loyal to the Greek culture of the Saleucid rulers, but Jewish conservatives, led by Mattathias, were greatly offended by the Greek ways. The story begins with murder on the altar, results in military victory by the zealous Maccabees over the Saleucids and their Jewish supporters, and ends in the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.
And Mattathi′as and his friends went about and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel.  They hunted down the arrogant men, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. [I Maccabees 45-48] 
When they were done, Judas Maccabee and his brothers "commanded that all the people of Israel shall celebrate the holiday of the dedication of the the temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, every year in praise and thanks to God." There is no mention of magic candles or a one day supply of oil that mysteriously burned for eight days.

Maccabees II (written ~124 BCE  in Alexandria in Greek(!)), notes that the holiday was celebrated as a second Sukkot (the fall harvest festival). Some say this explains the eight day duration of the holiday. Some say it coincided with the end of the olive harvest.

Hanukkah means "dedication." In the Babylonian Talmud (~500 A.D.) the rabbis converted the holiday to a festival of lights.  [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b] Yehuda Kurtzer thinks the rabbis inserted the miracle of oil into this dedication because they struggled against the dangers of celebrating a story of murderous nationalist religious zealotry, as described in the Book of Maccabees. It is the kind of zealotry that fired Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. Bernard Avishai says that of all the troubling details of the Rabin assassination, the one he cannot get out of his mind is that Amir attended synagogue on the morning of the assassination, where the weekly portion read was Abraham's binding of Isaac. Killing on God's command, as Abraham was ready to do; killing to uphold God's law regarding ritual sacrifice, as Mattathias did.... it leads to most unholy bloodshed and tyranny.  So the rabbis turned away and looked for a more benign meaning. 

Today, the holiday is celebrated as a festival of lights. The Reform website states: "It reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to stand against forces that would destroy Judaism and to keep alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation."

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  website draws the lesson that Jews worldwide should provide a robust and uncritical defense of Israel. It's the wrong lesson. Zealotry is loose in the land of Israel. Now is a time to question the murders Mattathias is guilty of, not a time to unthinkingly cheer them on.  More appropriately, at the Rabbinical Assembly website (also conservative), Rabbi Alan Lucas says: "The real challenge for Jews of all types, secular and religious, inside and outside Israel, is to identify with and affirm Hanukkah’s authentic message of optimism and faith."

Hanukkah is a joyous holiday. It is a time to light candles, to gather with friends, to sing, to fry latkes and enjoy them with apple sauce and sour cream from our Northern European traditions, and to bake sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) from our North African traditions.

Some enjoy salty cheese to celebrate Judith, who entered the Assyrian camp and fed salty cheese to the commander to make him thirsty, and wine to make him drunk. When he fell asleep, she cut off his head. I will skip the cheese.

As I watch the candles, I will think of the wisdom of the rabbis who turned away from nationalist zealotry and brought us Hanukkah as a Festival of Lights... and I will rededicate myself to fight nationalist zealotry....from Mattathias to Trump/Rubio/Cruz. And I will do so with optimism and faith.

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