A Chanukah Primer With a Pretext
Man bites dog is news; the New York Times getting the starting date of Chanukah wrong is not news. In regard to the Howard Jacobson op-ed on the subject, everything else about the piece was wrong as well. Since Jacobson is an acclaimed British author (and does a wonderful job defending Israel), perhaps the editorial page editor felt that publishing a piece offensive to any Jew who values tradition could be justified. (The piece simply disregarded everything that a Jew who understood Chanukah would value, and substituted ignorance for knowledge, façade for content. It should be viewed as the equivalent of publishing an opinion piece on December 25th arguing that the author cannot really get into Christmas because he finds the idea of Santa Claus’ galloping reindeer an affront to animal lovers.) I’m not sure what justification the editor had for not even checking the accuracy of the date, which according to the NYT was Tuesday evening.
Here, in part, is what Jacobson wrote:
The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.
The letter writers, led by our very own Rabbi Avi Shafran,got it right. Perhaps it would be appropriate to play a mind game – an inventory of the essential themes of the holiday that is upon us. If Jacobson were in the room, and had the time and patience to listen, what are the themes that we would want to share with him? Compiling a list of them might be useful in guiding the discussion at our tables in the course of the next eight days.
Wednesday, I gave my annual Chanukah shiur to a women’s group. I offered them two separate lists of topics. The first was what I called a medley of essential ideas and images. We had developed all of them in previous years, but I felt that it would be worthwhile at least reviewing them briefly. Readers will want to greatly expand upon this list in their comments. With apologies to R Gamliel, you might consider them (tongue in cheek) as a kind of כל מי שלא אמר דברים אלו בחנוכה לא יצא ידי חובתו. Rather than fully develop each one, I will just add a few phrases to unlock memory – or stimulate people to ponder and learn more.
1) Ner becomes ohr. The most pithy way of summarizing the ness shemen owes to R Hutner in Maamar 10. Ner is limited, grounded in dimension; ohr is ethereal and limitless. The ner of the menorah becomes in the latter days of the second Bais HaMikdosh the light of a flowering Torah she-b’al peh
2) What Yavan was. My vote for the single best throwaway line about Chanuka goes to a non-Jewish writer (and admirer of Hellenic culture), Matthew Arnold. “The Greeks found the holiness of beauty; the Jews found the beauty of holiness.”
3) Where the light comes from. Ramban’s famous comment that Aharon’s appeasement came from the role of Kohanim in Chanuka, and hadlakas neros as a continuation of the light of the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdosh even after its destruction./ The illumination of the Temple menorah as sourced in Torah she-b’al peh./ The light of the chanukiah as a hamshachah of the ohr ha-ganuz of Creation.
4) The internal struggle. The Syrian-Greeks were not the main enemy. The Hellenizers, the Jewish misyavnim were
5) Universalism vs. particularism Hellenic thinkers chafed at the premise of Torah – of a special relationship between one people and G-d. (This is one possible understanding of the midrash that they ordered us to write that we had no portion c”v in the G-d of Israel.) This was an ancient form of supersessionsim, which the Church used for hundreds of years to marginalize Jews, and has come back into vogue as of late through Palestinian pressure.
6) Background to national failure. The picture of Jewish life given to us by the navi before the period of the Maccabees shows a lackluster appreciation of Torah. If people cannot find a sense of the esthetic in their own avodas Hashem, they will need to find it elsewhere – such as in Hellenic culture. (Rav Nebenzahl, shlit”a)
After this cursory revisiting of old material, the shiur participants were ready for longer consideration of some different themes, all of which could give Jacobson a run for his money. They were selected to show the deep and multifaceted ruchniyus of Chanukah, the spiritual content that makes it more than a commemoration of an ancient event. Here, too, I will provide only a few phrases to frame the topic. Readers will hopefully develop these themes in their own ways. All of them happen to come from R. Chanoch Kerelenstein zt”l’s magnificent volume on Chanukah and Purim. Anyone wanting to listen to the actual shiur is welcome to download it.
1) Teva and ness Developing the Ramban at the end of Bo: the purpose of miracles is to show that everything is miraculous, i.e.an expression of the Divine Will./ Maharal: Chazal never give us commemoratives of miracles that allow us to observe mitzvos, only ones that save lives. Chanukah, as shown by the text of Al Hanisim, is really about the military victory. The ness shemen was necessary to insure that people would understand that the victory should not be ascribed to “natural” causes, but was as miraculous as the burning of the oil for eight days. R. Chanoch Kerelenstein: The Rambam speaks of lighting להראות ולגלות. The former shows off the obvious miracle of the oil; the latter reveals the connection between that miracle and the one of the victory, or the connection between the miraculous and the ordinary, which is no less miraculous
2) Bringing back the Shechinah The Yevanim had no need for and no room for a Shechinah in the midst of Man. Defiling the Beis HaMikdosh was supposed to drive the Shechinah away. The Tzlach argues, therefore, that on Chanuka we ought to pay special attention to shortcomings that make us less hospitable hosts of the Shechinah. (In his day, he claimed that it was talking in shul!) The avodah of recapturing the presence of the Shechinah is a continuous one.
3) Banishing spiritual mediocrity The Chashmonaim saw their straits as intolerable, and therefore waged war. Others would have accepted their fate, seeing the conditions imposed upon them by their rulers as an acceptable excuse for not doing more. Chanukah came about because people had enthusiasm for mitzvos! Chanukah is a time for reigniting the fire in our mitzvos.
Many more themes are resident in the Torah literature on Chanukah, of course. This little exercise was only meant to jump-start the process of people clarifying for themselves the spiritual content of the days that are upon us. Yehi Ratzon Hashem that they should be a time of Torah illumination to all of us!