Categories
Chanukah Holiday

The Full Story of Chanukah Has Much to Say to Us Today

In the fall of 1976, a young Jew stood at the crossroads. Recently confirmed, just back from a summer in Israel, a veteran of our URJ camps, and now a religious school intern — for the first time honestly confronting the story he, and countless generations of Jews, had learned about Chanukah. The one where a religious zealot named Judah Maccabee, with the help of a ragtag bunch of pious Jews, defeated the army of the evil King Antiochus. And when they rededicated the Temple, the story of the miraculous oil that burned for eight days.

That kid was me, and it seemed like we had learned that Chanukah was a celebration of militant Jewish zealotry. In 1976, the only contemporary Jew who fit that description was Meir Kahane of the JDL, a Jew I wanted nothing to do with. So why should I celebrate this holiday if he was the modern embodiment of Judah Maccabee? And, worse, if that is what Judaism values, why should I want to be Jewish?

Fortunately, I found myself at a teachers’ workshop, taught by Rabbi Manny Gold, where, for the first time, I learned of the Books of the Maccabees and the Apocrypha, and an entirely different tradition for why we celebrate Chanukah — one that made more sense to me and might just have saved me for Judaism. So, when I got to rabbinic school, I was open to harmonizing the two versions under the tutelage of Rabbi Martin Cohen, and found an even deeper story.

A story that starts with Jews divided over the best way to approach our Jewishness — either exclusively according to our traditions, or as part of seeking to participate in the larger (Greek) society. A division of the community in and around Jerusalem severe enough to cause King Antiochus to declare martial law in Judea to calm things down. Martial law, in this case, meant suspending the “constitution” (i.e., Torah) and sending in the troops to enforce the ban, garrisoning them in the most secure location in Jerusalem — the Temple complex.

This becomes the background against which Judah enters the story, not as a religious zealot, but as a compromise leader that the previously feuding Jewish factions all could rally behind to fight the common enemy. Among Judah’s first actions as leader was to allow his forces to take up arms on Shabbat — hardly the act of a religious zealot, but smart strategy, which eventually also allowed them to attack the enemy on Shabbat, to gain the element of surprise.

Using these tactics, Judah was able to hold the Syrian-Greek army at bay for three years, by which time there was enough going on elsewhere in Antiochus’s kingdom to convince him to pull his troops from Jerusalem. In the Maccabees version of the story, this led to cleaning the Temple from the Greek soldiers’ use, and an eight-day rededicatory celebration based either on Sukkot, or Solomon’s dedication festival after building the original Temple.

If things ended here, we would have a story that speaks to the tension between traditionalism and assimilation, and, as we will see, teaches us important values still today. But the story doesn’t end there, and over the next 700 years takes a series of twists and turns — all of which end up reinforcing these same values. The feuding picks up and is eventually ended by Judah’s last brother Simon, who inaugurates the Hasmonean Dynasty, which loses its control when the group that will become the Pharisees, and then the rabbis removes its support, leading to the Roman takeover that eventually leads to the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Once in power, the rabbis try to make Chanukah go away, but cannot, and so add the oil story to recast it within parameters that they can live with. (Yes, that summary was rushed, for space reasons, but these events are each well worth studying and understanding on their own!).

For the next 1000 years, the oil story becomes the only story Jews learn within our isolated communities — so even though it is added late with deliberate purpose, it is important to see that without it, there is no guarantee that the holiday survives on its own into the modern world, given the rabbis’ earlier efforts to make it disappear. It is only when Judaism emerges from isolation into the world of the Enlightenment and America that we Jews finally have access to both versions of the history.

So, at roughly the same time we American Jews were elevating the significance of Chanukah, mostly in response to the commercialization of Christmas around us, we also were given the texts, the opportunity, and the responsibility to change our understanding of the Chanukah story, bringing both versions together. Doing so replaces the miracle story with one that, with multiple examples over time, emphasizes for us the importance of rededicating ourselves to being serious Jews, participating more fully in the life of the Jewish community and its institutions, adapting our Jewish practice to allow us to navigate successfully between the polar pulls of strict traditionalism and full assimilation, and live lives of positive Jewish value.

And THAT is a story that has much to teach us about our Jewish life today.

Rabbi Steve Weisman is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD and a long-time teacher of the Chanukah story to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

Categories
Reform Judaism

Reclaiming Tisha B’Av

If Pesach is the Jewish holiday most celebrated by American Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most second-guessed. Modern Jews don’t know quite what to do with it. Most Jews and probably all Reform Jews do not yearn for the Temple to be rebuilt or for the priesthood to be restored. We are followers of Rabbinic Judaism, not the Israelite sacrificial cult. So the question naturally arises: Why mourn what we don’t miss?

 

One early American Reform leader, Rabbi David Einhorn, went so far as to make Tisha B’Av a happy celebration in his siddur, Olat Tamid (1896):

“The one Temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust, in order that countless temples might arise to Thy honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe… The true and real sanctuary, They imperishable testimony, remained ours, untouched and undimmed… In this our hope, this day of mourning and of fasting hath, according to the word of Thy prophet, been turned into a solemn day of rejoicing in view of the glorious destiny of Thy law and our high messianic mission which had its beginning with the historic events which we recall today” (Olat Tamid, Rabbi David Einhorn, trans. Emil Hirsch, S. Ettlinger: 1896, Chicago, pp. 144-145).

This transformation of a day of ancient mourning into a modern universalistic festival spoke to the classical Reform principle of being a light to the nations by spreading ethical monotheism to the world. The Diaspora, made possible by the Temple’s destruction, enabled our noble mission.

Notably, Einhorn’s liturgical innovation predated both the modern state of Israel and the Reform Movement’s support of Zionism. Einhorn’s solution to the Tisha B’Av question does not work for us today because it lacks balance and because the Jewish world has changed dramatically.

A fitting Tisha B’Av rite for the postmodern Jew should embrace the themes of loss, destruction, and weakness while also acknowledging the unprecedented prosperity and security of most Jews today. There is haunting beauty and spiritual richness in sitting on the floor in a dimly lit sanctuary, hearing the cantor chant Eichah. Not to mention that the themes of destruction and exile resonate today in so many places around the world. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to cultivate our capacity to care. (As I write this, a refugee team is competing in the Rio Olympics. Look no further than those champions to learn about exile and resilience.)

A balanced Tisha B’Av would include mention of our people’s triumphs as well. We should emphasize what makes the Jewish reality today so different than in 586 BCE (the Babylonian exile) and 70 CE (the Roman destruction). The state of Israel exists as an economic and military powerhouse, and the American Jewish community is more prosperous than ever. Neither is without its challenges, but our crises pale in comparison to our ancient forebears’. Let us feel gratitude for our blessings even as we pledge vigilance in the face of our challenges.

If nothing else, Tisha B’Av is a chance to retell part of our people’s story. The power of storytelling creates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, and even a sense of responsibility to carry on the story. Psychologists who study family storytelling have determined that the most powerful family narrative type is the “oscillating” narrative: We had struggles but we overcame them together. So many of our historical holidays touch that theme. Tisha B’Av is often a missed opportunity to retell part of that story – the ups and downs and everything in between. With some intentional planning and thoughtful implementation, we can honor Tisha B’Av’s origin and make it matter again to the Jews of today.

Rabbi David Segal serves Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen, Colorado.