JWR's Chanukah

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer: The Age of Illumination

Rabbi Moshe Sherer: Exploiting the Menorah -- and the Miracle

Lawrence Charap: Whose Chanukah? Variations on the Hasmonean Theme

Aural Torah: Sounds of the Lights

Reader Response

December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758
Whose Chanukah?

Variations on the Hasmonean Theme

Progressive? Nationalist? Traditional-rabbinic? Historian Lawrence Charap explores some of Chanukah's different meanings and the uncomfortable ambiguities of Hasmonean heroism.

NOT SO MANY YEARS AGO, I attended Hebrew school in the three-times-a-week pattern common among suburban Jews. Every year we looked forward to singing the Chanukah carols that, along with cold temperatures and a rising feeling of defensiveness, marked, for us, the "holiday season." In particular, we loved to sing one song in its original Hebrew, which may be translated as:

When You will have prepared the slaughter
For the blaspheming foe,
Then shall I complete with a song of hymn,
the dedication of the altar.

I, for one, never realized we were singing this, and I suspect that very few Jews who sing the traditional hymn Maoz Tzur, or "Rock of Ages," every year know what the Hebrew actually says. Indeed, it is difficult to find an honest English translation of this late-medieval song. It is probably safe to say that the English version most Jewish children learn -- the one that I learned, and that appears in most prayer books -- speaks of "shelt'ring towers," and ends with a vision of a coming time "which will see all men free, tyrants disappearing." That hardly seems like what the original version, with its vision of "vengeance of Your servants' blood," has in mind for the ideal Jewish future.

This is no accident. The standard English version of "Rock of Ages" was translated from Leopold Stein's rather domesticated German rendering by Marcus Jastrow and Gustave Gottheil, two of the leading lights of nineteenth-century progressive Judaism in the United States. Its familiar melody, we are told, is a Renaissance-era German folk-tune of the kind that typically appears in Protestant hymnals.

The dichotomy between the popular translation and actual translation reveals the extent of ambivalence of mixed feelings about Jews' relationship to the non-Jewish world. The song owes its popularity to its reputedly non-Jewish melody and the enlightened and tolerant gloss given to it in broad translation. But an ancient cry of suffering and retribution remains embedded in the Hebrew text, waiting to be heard.

COULD THERE BE a better expression of what Chanukah represents to the modern Jewish mind? The popularity of the holiday itself expresses the paradox, for certainly American Jews observe the holiday far more widely than they do festivals mandated by the Torah, such as Sukkot and Shavuot. We never tire of pointing out the dissimilarity of Channukah and Christmas, which just happen to fall at about the same time. The former is a celebration of Jewish identity and idealism. The latter seems degraded by rampant commercialism and exploitation for profit. For just this reason, the celebration of Chanukah after the fashion of Christmas has long been for America's Jewish traditionalists the hallmark of decadence, of giving in to assimilation at precisely the moment when one should most resist it.

BUT THERE IS another, equally paradoxical, reason for Jews celebrating the holiday as extensively as they do. One of the psalms read on Chanukah reads "Who can recount the deeds of the Lord?"; another song I learned in Hebrew school transforms this into "the deeds of Israel."

Chanukah is definitely about "the deeds of Israel," and Jewish heroes who didn't compromise, but what these heroes actually stood for depends on whom you ask. Chanukah has assumed a new importance in the State of Israel's civic religion and in Israeli historical scholarship. Chanukah provides a crucial link in the genealogy of Zionism by arguing that Jews have always been a warrior people; implicitly, this refutes both the modern stereotype of Jews as passive weaklings and the religious conception of the Jews as a nation of scholars.

The influence of this Israeli ideal of the fighting Jew, coming after the Holocaust, has stamped American Jewish identity with the themes of threat, resistance, and triumph --- themes prominent in the Chanukah of Maoz Tzur. Just as the Maccabees defeated "Hellenism," modern Jewish identity revolves around the defeat of "assimilation." Both moderate and self-consciously extremist community leaders (here the late Meir Kahane's writings come to mind) link these terms together, as the parallel perils of antiquity and modernity.

The idea is neatly captured in Emil Fackenheim's eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory" by assimilating out of the Jewish people. The Jewish nation is capable of surviving external onslaughts, no matter how terrible, but the enticements of assimilation can destroy the Jewish people from within. In this view, the danger depends on Jews' false sense of security. The paradoxical result is a comfortable, suburban American Jewish community entranced by apocalyptic, even suicidal, hyper-nationalism. Visions of Masada, Betar, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Yom Kippur 1973 all dance in the imaginations of Jewish-American youth -- perhaps even more strongly than they do in Israelis'. Theirs is not the genteel Chanukah of "Rock of Ages."

We should perhaps reconsider the history of the Maccabees and Hellenism as currently popularly presented. Intriguingly, the most religiously committed segments of the Jewish community have tended to read the story of the Maccabees with a critical eye, preferring to stress its value as spiritual allegory. [For the spiritual significance of Chanukah, see the articles by Rabbis Feuer and Sherer in this issue. -Ed.]

LET US CONSIDER two important concerns, one about the Hasmoneans, the other about the Hellenists. First, the Hasmonean victory over Antiochus had disastrous consequences for Jews in later years. The Maccabees were assured of success after their earliest rulers made an alliance with Rome; less than a hundred years later, the feuding heirs of their dynasty invited the Romans to occupy the land.

The Hasmoneans also divided the Jewish people, with eerie parallels to modern disputes. The Hasmonean ethnarchs claimed for themselves the office of High Priest, earning the lasting hatred of Jewish traditionalists. The Hasmonean monarchs did fight fiercely against Judea's neighbors, but then forced them to convert en masse to Judaism. For these reasons, the Pharisees revolted against the Maccabees' descendants and were brutally massacred.

The Pharisees' successors, the Rabbis of the second century, lived in the shadow of two catastrophic revolts against Rome. While only a few went so far as to express gratitude for the Roman state's guarantee against chaos, most viewed the destruction of the Temple and the intensification of the occupation as disasters whose recurrence must be avoided. The well-known story of the great Talmudist Rabbi Yochanan's escape from the siege of Jerusalem in a coffin to found the academy at Yavneh epitomizes this view. The city Rabbi Yochanan left behind was starving, but still split into two warring camps. The last holdouts in Masada, celebrated by modern nationalists, were described by the Jewish historian Josephus as the most militant of the sicarii, terrorists whose random and murderous acts of violence first caused the war and then scuttled effective resistance to the Roman legions. Thus, the traditional Rabbinic preference for a spiritual understanding of Chanukah with deliberate de-emphasis on the historical tale is not hard to understand. The Books of the Maccabees, offensive to either Roman or Rabbinic attitudes, or both, were not preserved by the Sages.

The second issue of historical concern is the significance of "Hellenism." Scholars have argued endlessly about the degree to which Jews and Greeks interacted in antiquity; it is probably fair to say that the opposition between Jews and Greeks was already well-established by the time the Talmud was recorded. But this judgment was nuanced and complex. The Talmud forbids the content of Greek thought while praising some of its attributes; Greek high culture could be appreciated but never imbibed too deeply without the possibility of apostasy. "Greek" eventually came to refer to the entire non-Jewish world, and that is the meaning of "Hellenism" in the Jewish lexicon today. As a Yiddish folk-tale puts it, Alle Yevonim hobn di zelbe ponim -- "All Greeks have the same face."

WHAT DOES THIS have to do with the divergence between Maoz Tzur and "Rock of Ages"? The nationalist trend in Jewish thought celebrates Chanukah as the emblem of a war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness -- a kind of Jewish Star Wars. Jewish progressives reject this thinking as appropriate for the era of ghettos and pogroms, and focus on the holiday as a precursor to universal liberation. While progressives celebrate Chanuakh as the triumph of universal religious freedom, nationalists use it to remind us of the eternal fragility of freedom in the face of an unrelentingly hostile world.

Yet the greater significance of Chanukah might be not only Jews' confronting the might (or seductions) of the non-Jewish world, but the force of Jewish actions. Jews today, both in the United States and in Israel, acutely feel the reality of Jewish power. In both countries, Jews are freer than ever before from external constraints on their direction; they have achieved a level of self-determination unknown since Hasmonean days. But our reexamination of the Chanukah story should also remind us of what power means to any system of thought: the collision of eternal principles with the necessities of the moment.

The new sensation of Jewish power -- absent from the Jewish historical consciousness for two thousand years -- forces us collectively into the place of Machiavelli's Prince, who had to rely on cunning and strength to survive the shifting winds of fortune. If it is hard to imagine raison d'etat in the world of the Talmud, it is just as hard to imagine Jewish thought without it after the tumult of the twentieth century. The very songs we sing at Chanukah evoke the tension between the demands of our ideals and the demands of power in the relationship of Jews to non-Jews, resisting all efforts at simplification. The entanglements and complexities of that relationship are an inescapable feature of Judaism and Jewish identity, then, now, and very likely always.


Lawrence Charap is an historian of American religion and culture. He lives in Baltimore.