Hanukkah: Eight Candles, Eight Interpretations On Civil War
Hanukkah is more than a miracle of eight days of oil, more than dreidles, more than latkes or suvganiot, and more than Hanukkah gelt of either the chocolate or the real persuasion.
I have collected for you writings that present eight different potential interpretations of this winter holiday, one for each candle. They are in no particular order other than that I put a personal friend’s writing first and saved my own for last. I pull them all together at the end with a metaphoric Shamas.
First Hanukkah Candle
In a piece entitled, “The Great Hanukkah Cover-up: Self-Censorship and National Survival“, Yael Shahar talks about the inability of the Jews, still trying to recover from the Babylonian exile, to cope with the Hellenistic influence without having it overwhelm them and threaten Jewish tradition. I find her description of our potential ability to do that today a particularly beautiful one:
The hanukkiah is not lit in the private space of the home, nor is it traditionally lit in purely public spaces; rather, it is set out on the threshold of the home, marking the dividing line between private and public space, between the light streaming outward from the home and the light coming in from outside. And really, this is what the holiday is all about: defining distinctions between what is inside and what is outside—what values we assimilate from other cultures and what is best left outside, what customs and world-views uniquely define us, and what traditions and practices we can let go of in light of new circumstances. In the end, our light meets the lights of other cultures, and yet remains itself. [emphasis mine in this and all following quotes]
Second Hanukkah Candle
In her article, “The Truth(s) About Hanukah“, Shawna Dolansky, notes that the behaviour of the Maccabees is not easily defined:
So the truth about the Maccabees is a slippery one. National liberators or religious fanatics? Freedom fighters or terrorists? The truth depends on who’s telling their story, and for what purpose.
While the holiday celebrates the victory of the religious Hasmoneans over the Greeks and the Hellenized (secular) sector of the Jewish population, the victorious Maccabees did, against religious Law, declare themselves and their sons kings. Corrupted by their power, they continued to kill Jews, Torah observant or otherwise. The entire context of the period, before and afterward, needs to be considered in order to address the question Dolansky raises.
Third Hanukkah Candle
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, wrote a piece called “Origins of Hanukkah: Miracle or Revolt?” He wonders if we can resolve the rabbinic spiritual view (re-dedication of the Temple and God’s part in the Hasmonean victory) with the Zionist warrior view (the Maccabees as victors by their own might):
As we have seen, the Rabbinic tradition was hostile to the Maccabees, and modern Zionism, identifying with the Maccabees, was often hostile to the Rabbis. From the standpoint of the Rabbis, Hanukkah celebrated God’s saving Spirit: “not by might and not by power…” From the standpoint of the Maccabees, Hanukkah celebrated human courage, the human ability to make history bend and change.
Waskow concludes that we can incorporate “both the Maccabee and the Rabbi within us”. The piece, “Origins of Hanukkah” is no longer available online, but he repeats this discussion briefly on pages 18-19 of this document.
Abigail Pogrebin’s article, “A Split in the Jewish Soul: Hanukkah Reconsidered“, talks about the miracle of our endurance through the ages in spite of the many divisions among us:
And I’m beginning to understand that endurance may require difference. Though many are uncomfortable with highlighting what sets us apart, this is a holiday that telegraphs it: We are not the same; We hold on to our rituals and we put menorahs in our windows to remind the world that we are distinct and we are still here.
In his article, “Hanukkah as Jewish Civil War“, James Ponet asks if ethnic groups need to have defined boundaries as distinct nation-states in order to survive. After all, the Jewish People survived through 2,000 years of exile. What does the modern State of Israel contribute to our peoplehood? He asks us to ponder the Hanukkah candles in this way:
Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.
We go back to Shawna Dolansky, who made another point in her article:
The promotion of Hanukkah to a major Jewish festival got its impetus from two things that you might never have thought of in the same sentence before: Zionism and Christmas.
The fighting spirit of the Maccabees was something with which early Zionists fighting on the soil that was to become the modern State of Israel could identify. Later, as the world grew more commercialized and Christmas gifts and trees dominated the environment in which Diaspora children were growing up, Hanukkah grew to serve as a counterweight, providing an anchor to Judaism for the secular Jewish family.
I raised two issues in my article entitled, “Hanukkah Then and Now: Let’s Not Be So Naive“. Firstly, I wonder how different today’s leftists are from the Hellenized Jews at the time of the Hanuka story (and later the Hasmoneans in following generations). Both asked non-Jews to step in and help them gain the upper hand over another sector of the Jewish population with whom they were/are in conflict.
Was it different for them [Hellenist Jews] to ask the Greeks to intervene against fellow Jews than it is for Leftists to ask the world to BDS Israel into submission and force us to give up pieces of our ancient homeland? The difference is perhaps in motive – Menelaus and the Tobiads wanted wealth and power and the Leftists truly believe they have the best interests of Israel at heart. But the similarity, inviting foreign agents to muscle in and exert their “influence” on fellow Jews with whom they disagree, is too big an issue to avoid discussing.
Later, in the Hasmonean Period, warring factions asked the Romans to mediate their dispute regarding succession to the throne. Rome obliged and this ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple and our dispersion. This emphasizes the importance of the question asking why we Jews do not feel equipped to handle our in-fighting on our own.
Eighth Hanukkah Candle
Secondly, would a civil war in which Jew killed Jew be possible today?
. . . religious Jews of that time were willing to kill other Jews who did not agree to fully live by Mosaic Law. While we have evidence of fanatics on the right being willing to commit acts of terror (such as Baruch Goldstein) and even to kill a Jewish leader (Yigal Amir), we must ask if given the “right” conditions we would not have a contemporary civil war that mirrors the Hasmonean actions of yore.
I cannot fathom it. But there is so much insanity in the world today that I do believe that if we do not ask ourselves this question, we may not be aware of sliding down the slippery slope before it is too late.
And then, what can the Shamash signify?
Perhaps the Shamash, then, with which we light the eight candles, can remind us that it is up to each one of us to decide to what depth to take our understanding of the Hanukkah story.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating Hanukkah as a kids’ holiday and when the kids are asleep, pondering deeper meanings ourselves. After all, much of life is like this — as an adult watching kids’ cartoons with my daughters, I was astonished at how many puns were put in that only adults could understand. Many children’s books, as well, can be fully appreciated by adults, and, such as “Winnie the Pooh”, provide much food for thought. So, after the dreidles are put away, maybe the grown-ups can gather around a fresh plate of latkes and some wine and discuss the lessons of Hanukkah and how to keep Jew-versus-Jew conflicts from escalating anywhere near to civil war, or any other aspect of the holiday that triggers reflection.
Love your thinking, love your writing… This is really insightful!
Thank you so much for including my essay in this insightful collection. You’ve raised some very good questions. These vignettes and questions would be great discussion topics for families to explore around candle-lighting.