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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 For the rabbis, the miracle of Hanukah is to be found in a sacred realm withdrawn from political and historical life, in the oil of the temple lamp and the Talmudic academies that keep its flames flickering.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.

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