Israel and Chanukah: Then and Now


 Israel and Chanukah: Then and Now

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Note: The sharp of eye may have noticed that I have slightly changed the spelling of this blog from “Israelity” to “Isreality”. The reason: it was pointed out to me that there already exists a blog called “Israelity” at Israel21: So as not to confuse everyone, my blog’s name now has more “reality” and a bit less “Israel”.

Chanukah is upon us once again. Normally it is a time for reawakened national pride and spiritual uplift (not to mention gifts, games and jelly doughnuts). I would like to add some reflection to the proceedings.

It seems to me that Chanukah has much to offer the contemporary scene, for as Ecclesiastes opined: “there is nothing new under the sun”. I discern three separate but somewhat related themes in the original holiday that are relevant to present day politics and society in Israel.

First, the question of what precisely is “Jewish Heroism”: is this something military or spiritual? The Chanukah story itself seems to support the former but the Rabbis thought otherwise as can be seen in a key sentence from the Sabbath Haftorah reading that the rabbis decided to canonize on this holiday, of all possible holidays: “not by soldiers and not by power but rather by my spirit, sayeth the Lord of Hosts“.

Israeli society is also caught in the conundrum. On the one hand, it glorifies its generals (and soldiers); on the other hand, it is one of the few countries in the world (perhaps the only one!) that celebrates Independence Day with a Bible contest as well as handing out the Israel Prize to its leading intellectual lights. Indeed, the issue has become very prosaically political: to spend more on national defense or on education? The coming elections could well be decided by those who feel the latter needs more resources, after decades of feeding the former.

Second, the issue of “Hellenism”, or as it is called today: “Westernization”, “secularization”, “modernization” – to separate from the “modern” world or to integrate into it? Here too it is not coincidental that the Sabbath Chanukah Torah reading includes the story of Joseph in Egypt who does precisely that – changes his name and appearance to the extent that his brothers cannot even recognize him, but who ultimately returns to his family traditions.

Israel is awash in matters from the West. Even Hebrew is becoming unrecognizable to old-timers brought up on the Hebraically rooted poetry of Bialik and the prose of Agnon. And yet, as I have noted in a previous post, non-religiously-observant Jews in Israel have begun a quest for their spiritual roots (e.g. “secular yeshivas”). Basic customs are held as strongly as ever: Passover Seder, mezuzahs on the door, etc. Most Israelis are not seeking to leave Judaism but rather to find the right synthesis between modernity and hoary tradition.

Third and finally, the original Chanukah story started a process that raised the most fundamental political issue of all: sovereign independence at any cost? How should a small country like Israel (then and now) deal with the Great Powers? Is it better to have peace and mere political autonomy or risk all for ultimate political sovereignty? The eventual destruction of the Second Temple and subsequent catastrophic Bar-Kochba revolt argue for the former approach, but as the Holocaust clearly showed, a lack of political sovereignty can also be disastrous for the Jewish people. (Here too the Chanukah Torah portion shows what can happen when Jews leave their homeland: slavery in Egypt.)

Most interesting of all is the fact that Chanukah is the only significant Jewish national holiday that does not have its “story” canonized somewhere in the Bible – despite the fact that there are at least two extant versions of the “Book of the Maccabees” (in the Apocrypha). Of course, this does not mean that we today can’t or shouldn’t learn lessons from the Chanukah story; it just means that we have to be very careful (as were the Rabbis) what particular lesson we want to learn.

Dec. 18, 2008

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