The Two-Way Street | What’s Hanukkah All About, And Since When?

Rabbi George Stern
on December 7, 2020

Today, almost 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have had the satisfaction of resettling the land. But with sovereignty has come continual armed conflict. The Talmudic sages have shown that flexible interpretation of biblical assertions is lifesaving. Let’s take a look at how the early rabbis dealt with Hanukkah as an example of how their interpretive prowess can be applied to today’s Israel/Palestine conflict.

Hanukkah gets very little attention in the Talmud. Undoubtedly, the Jews celebrated the Maccabees’ victory. But during the brief period of Jewish rule following the rebellion, Judah’s descendants, the Hasmoneans, gradually lost their luster. They became increasingly self-absorbed and ultimately betrayed the revolution that brought them to power. They fused the temporal and priestly powers, so that high priest and king were one and the same — a politically dangerous and corrupt decision.

Many of the rabbis who ultimately penned the Mishnah and Gemara (which together make up the Talmud) saw that Jewish independence needed to be redefined. Given the domination of the known world by imposing empires, Jews could no longer expect to hold sovereignty over their land. What they could control, however, was their inner life and their connection to God.

The rabbis relegated the Books of the Maccabees to a collection of seforim hitzoniyim — literally “external books” — precluding them from the biblical canon they were creating. They probably wished that would go away — both because they felt that the Romans wouldn’t look favorably upon Jews celebrating a victory over the Greeks and because they sought to separate Judaism from nationalism and to create a path through which Jews could purify themselves and their society by their fealty to God and mitzvot.

Obliterating Hanukkah altogether apparently proved impossible. So they reinterpreted it as a story of God’s power, manifested by the “miracle of the oil,” as described in the Gemara. They made two liturgical decisions. For the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah, they chose Zechariah 2:14-4:7, which insists (4:6) that the temple will be rebuilt “not by might and not by power, but by [God’s] spirit.” The temple was no longer the “house of God” built by a king, but rather a place of worship built by God. Eventually, they added a Hanukkah insertion to the Amidah that’s all about the miracles God performed “in the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan…” — with no reference to Judah the Maccabee or the Hasmonean dynasty.

The rabbis transformed God’s promise of control over the land to a promise that God would give Jews the tools (mitzvot) to gain control over the “inner geography” of their lives. They took Isaiah’s teaching that God wants justice more than sacrifices one step further by saying that Jews could satisfy the covenant through good deeds no matter where they lived (the major version of the Talmud having been codified in Babylonia).

Unlike the ancient rabbis, we live at a time when Jews have sovereignty over their ancient homeland. But like the rabbis, J Street wisely understands that land is only part of what Jews and Judaism are all about. Jews share a strong spiritual dimension, defined not by land but rather by a strong sense of right and wrong, of morality, of respect for all human beings. And that is why we insist that the land be shared and all its inhabitants be treated fairly, no matter how long it takes to achieve that goal.

Rabbi George Stern served as a pulpit rabbi in Upper Nyack, NY, for almost 30 years, then as Executive Director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement in Philadelphia for almost ten. Before retirement, he led JSPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, also in Philadelphia.

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