Home » Michael Fagenblat, Recent Posts, Religion and Jewish Thought

Hanukah Today: Living with Miracles

December 20, 2011 – 4:45 pm8 Comments

Judah Maccabee

By Michael Fagenblat
The significance of Hanukah has vividly transformed in modern times. The Talmudic rabbis were conspicuously reticent about the historical and political connotations of the festival. The Book of Maccabees, which records the historical rebellion lead by Judas Maccabeus, was not included in the Jewish Bible, even though pre-rabbinic Jews regarded it as part of sacred Scripture. As a consequence we don’t read the scriptural record on Hanukah as we read, for example, the Book of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av or the Book of Esther on Purim. Hanukah, moreover, is not mentioned once in the foundational rabbinic document, the Mishnah, and its appearance in later Talmudic discussions celebrates the sacred miracle of the oil more than the historical resumption of Jewish political sovereignty. It seems clear that the Talmudic rabbis were markedly reluctant to embrace the historical and political significance of the festival and preferred to concentrate on the purely sacred miracle of the lights instead.

The contrast could hardly be starker with the significance of Hanukah in modern Israel. Here we find the opposing interpretation approaching the status of a consensus. Major currents in religious and secular Zionism view Hanukah as the symbol par excellence for celebrating the resumption of Jewish political sovereignty and “the Jewish return into history”. A stark example is provided by the fate of Psalm 106 in modern times. The second verse, Who shall praise the power of Hashem!, is transformed into a celebration of the political accomplishments of the Jewish people – Who shall praise the power of Israel! mi yim’alel gevurot yisrael.

We can observe two principal shifts of focus from the rabbinic to the modern Israeli understanding of Hanukah. The first concerns the location of the miracle, the second its source. For the rabbis, the miracle of Hanukah is to be found in a sacred realm withdrawn from political and historical life, in the oil of the temple lamp and the Talmudic academies that keep its flames flickering. By contrast, for many modern Jews the true miracle lies precisely in those historical and political events that the rabbis marginalized, in political sovereignty. It is not secularization but modernization that brought about this transformation. Religious Zionists, for example, also look to the historical and political aspects of the festival to perceive the true miracle of Hanukah, and the lights of the Temple and the Talmud now flicker in the light of History.

Similarly, for the rabbis the source of the miracle is none other than the Holy Blessed One, whereas modern Jews tend to emphasize that the source of the miracle lies in Jewish agency, or is at least mixed up in our agency. Even a Hasidic Rebbe like Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev, writing in Poland in the late 18th century, seems to express the modern penchant for agency over passivity. Why, he asks, do we add the prayer “for the miracles—al hanisim,” on Hanukah but not on Passover, when the latter commemorates far greater miracles such as the plagues and the splitting of the sea? His answer: because on Hanukah we brought about the miracles and they are therefore all the more blessed.

What is gained and what is lost in reevaluating the significance of Hanukah in this way? It is not simply a matter of accepting or rejecting miracles, since both ancient and modern Jews, religious and even secular, see the miraculous in Hanukah, just in different aspects. The transformations of the miracle of Hanukah are transformations of what claims us, of how we are claimed. The flickering of events in which we see light.

But does the claim of the miracle always come from the past? If its values and symbols are opened by our responses and changing interpretations, does not the miracle still fix us to the past, to events that have long passed and perhaps ought no longer be so meaningful? The miracle must also illuminate the future, otherwise it degenerates into dead metaphors that cannot sustain genuine reanimation. And here lies the danger of the miracle. For we have all survived the miracles of the past, but the future’s miracles are far from assured.

Living with miracles is risky business. A candle can start a raging fire. As much as we are asked to see the miracle, we must therefore also find the right place for it in our lives. This is why the Psalmist whom we encountered above, who proclaims the great power of Hashem which modern experience finds in historical and political Israel, immediately reserves this vision of the miracle for “those who keep justice”. Maimonides offers another, by no means incompatible, way. At the end of his Laws of Hanukah, which urge us to proclaim the miracle in full glory, Maimonides reflects on the place of the miracle in ordinary life. If one has enough money only for oil for the Hanukah lamp or the household lamp, which one to choose? Buy oil for the house, he says, because the intimate peace of a household, of one person living with another, is greater than proclaiming all the miracles, “for the whole Torah was given to make peace in the world”.

Michael Fagenblat, Monash University (Australia), is a Templeton Fellow in Philosophical Theology at the Shalem Center for 2011-12.

Print Friendly

8 Comments »

  • castillan says:

    Nice one!

    Yesterday my 3 yr old boy came home from creche and was telling me about the Hannukah story. I asked him what he liked about it and he told me: Ha-yevanim. I said: Surely you mean ha-yehudim. He said: No Abba, ha-yevamin, ki-hem hazakim!

    Hag Sameakh

  • Ari says:

    Hi Michael,

    Admittedly I am not sure that I understood you. In any case just a couple of points:
    I am not sure what you mean by pre-Rabbinic Jews and what is meant by the term sacred. Do you mean Jews living before the Tannaim? Do you mean Jews that were not Pharisaic? By sacred do you mean that the books were read in public as part of liturgy? Or that the books were deemed prophetic? Ito my knowledge none of the later discussion in rabbinic literature indicate that Macabbees, specifically, was of doubtful status and was removed from the canon. It is not that I can prove the claim one way or another – I am not aware of evidence suggesting its ‘sacred’ status in the Hasmonean period – even if that is what was intended by its authors and even if it did end up in the Christian canon. Channuka is mentioned many times in the Mishna(as my good friend Rabbi Dr. P. Hashut confirmed)for instance Rosh Hashanna 1:3; Taanit 2:10, Megillah 3:4, 6; Moed Katan 3:9; Bava Kama 6:6; and also a number of times in the tosefta to name just a few: Brachot 3:10; Sukka 3:2.The last source discusses hallel on Channuka and Bava Kama clearly shows that lights were lit and that it was probably obligatory. The meaning of Chanukka is not discussed in the Mishna but I don’t think the meaning of any festival is. On the other hand the mitzvah of lighting the channukiah and its requirements are not discussed. In any case the victory over the Greeks and its Divine agency is well preserved in the Al Hanisim – the Yemenite version featuring without the miracle of the oil at all. However the divine agency aspect is pronounced and is mixed up in human agency – probably most closely aligned to the view of modern Religious Zionists. This is also a feature of the Rambam’s explanation at the beginning of Hilchot Hannuka. The gemarra focuses on the miracle of oil more than the military victory but still mentions it but without Divine agency saying only, “kshe gavra malchut beit Hashmonai.” Who knows why Channuka is presented this way or why its mitzvah is not mentioned in the Mishna? Maybe it has more to do with the problematic nature of a Kohen-King or the later spiritual decline of the rulers – To claim that political sovereignty was the issue is perhaps more a modern reading than anything else – even though I’m sure Boyarin and co. would agree with you. The nature of how Channuka was presented and its focus in the gemarra seems to teach that miracles of the past necessitate a reading of the present in presence of the Divine hand even if we are wary of relying on miracles, else we risk spiritual and ethical decay. Perhaps this is the message that the Rabbis wish to indicate – that belief in human agency alone(in war and in ethics) leads to spiritual downfall and the tents of Yefet. Those who observe G-d’s statutes recognising His kindness, unlike those who sinned in the desert, are able to sing praises of His strength. Those who follow G-d’s ways are victorious in battle. Sometimes, battles are won and menorahs are lit when the odds seem doubtful because we are willing to rely on the miraculous and we believe in the righteousness of our cause. Past miracles impress upon us the miracles of the present.
    (Though I did like the ethical spin of it all – especially given some of the lunatics patrolling the hills out by my place)

  • Leo Braun says:

    Sadly, instead of commemoration Hanukah miracles, storm erupted in Israel as a secular majority became outraged over a bus back-seat coercion for women. Apparently, a woman who took to Facebook to vent her disgust, after being bullied to take a back seat aboard a public bus, has sparked outrage across the country.

    Tanya Rosenblit (28) from the southern town of Ashdod in Israel boarded a bus heading to the ultra orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem. A couple of stops later, after she sat-down behind the driver, a man wearing black-garb and flowing side-locks of the ultra orthodox sway, boarded the bus and told her to move back.

    Manifestly, the ultra orthodox Jews (taliban like religious radicals), yeshiva brainwashed freeloaders (living on the taxpayer subsidies) who make-up about 10% of Israel’s 7.6 milion population, have become increasingly aggressive in their campaign to impose sharia tyranny in public places. So when the courageous woman refused to move, frenzied man blocked the bus from driving.

    In response brave woman held her ground, even after a male police officer dispatched to the scene wondered if she was: “willing to respect them and move to the back”. Commendably, affronted woman who didn’t break any Israeli Law (yet being confronted by the police officer) replied that she respected religious customs enough to dress modestly. Hence categorically, she was adamant not to incur more humiliation via submission to the loony whims.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu spoke out consequently against the attempted segregation: “Fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator”! Two Israel’s ultra orthodox chief rabbis agreed that the public transport should remain unrestricted. So long weighted-down govt by the ultra orthodox sway to fund private transport. Alike the multi-million-dollar skyscrapers, owned by the “not for profit” organisations. Whose fanatically indoctrinated foot-solders exercised sadism reflexes.

    Of course Israeli-Palestinian conflict obscured hideous undercurrents, hell-bent to establish repressive sharia. Hence the ongoing episodes to subjugate women in Israeli society. For now frenzied man who stirred the latest controversy opted out of the bus rather than face a woman on board. But what disturbed more moral observers, definitely modus-operandi Israel’s law enforcement authorities, since the militant thuggery went unchallenged. Thus attesting on the untouchables sway, contrary frivolous claims apropos thriving democracy.

    PS: Just imagine the fury to explode, should have a female police officer intervened instead? Ironically, a wave of recent demonstrations in Israel, resolutely demanded “tzedek hevrati”!

  • Marky says:

    Typo: perspective

  • Leo Braun says:

    “The transformations of the miracle of Hanukah are transformations of what claims us, of how we are claimed. The flickering of events in which we see light. But does the claim of the miracle always come from the past? If its values and symbols are opened by our responses and changing interpretations, does not the miracle still fix us to the past, to events that have long passed and perhaps ought no longer be so meaningful? The miracle must also illuminate the future, otherwise it degenerates into dead metaphors that cannot sustain genuine reanimation. And here lies the danger of the miracle. For we have all survived the miracles of the past, but the future’s miracles are far from assured. Living with miracles is risky business. A candle can start a raging fire. As much as we are asked to see the miracle, we must therefore also find the right place for it in our lives”!

    • Yeah, brilliantly couched and communicated since 3000 years ago, Hanukah Festival of Lights, commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC (at the time of the Assyrian-Greek Empire). That’s a lot of time to build-up angst versus those who are perceived to have wronged world community. So when will staunch zionists begin to embrace other people’s cultures, while contributing to the world peace?

    A wishful thinking at the time when it’s becoming clear that the fixated vision of a greater zion becoming reality — as the regimes opposing zionist ambitions imploded in succession!

    Who would have believed that by spinning a dreidel, the world of goyim to collapse? A dreidel, children’s game, played in the light of a fire in cold winter night, as a menorah reflections silently glowed in the window. Dreidel swivelled four sides (*), spun around its center (zion) in the circle, have been spinning so fast that the side-images blurred into nothingness.

    Seemingly so insignificant, yet the spun little dreidel contains ancient tale:

    “The history of the whole world, as well as The Hand that spins the dreidel, comes from above. Ironically, every empire thinks that it will last forever, but The Hand that spins, only spins the dreidel of history for predetermined period of time, before each empire falters on its axis and crashes, despite its vainglorious boasting”!

    * So what is it, that has been carved on the dreidel sides?

    Nun, Gimmel, Shin and Hey — letters depicted in Hebrew on its surface. What stands for: | Nes | Gadol | Hayah | Sham | or a { Miracle | Great | Happened | There }. Denoting commemoration of the miraculous victory by the faithful few over the might of the Greek Empire. But on a deeper level, dreidel embodied microcosmic representation of the four kingdoms (Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome), spinning around its center (zion).

Leave a comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.