What Is Chanukah?
“מאי חנוכה” – “What is Chanukah?” With these words does the Gemara (Shabbos 21a) commence its presentation of the religious historical underpinnings of Chanukah.
Unfortunately, Chanukah has become the most misunderstood and distorted of Jewish holidays. The secular American Jewish observance of Chanukah is largely manifest as the Festival of Consumerism (along with latkes, dreidels and vague messages of generic religious tolerance); the secular Israeli observance of Chanukah is manifest as the Festival of Might – the Maccabees’ religious devotion and attribution of their success to Hashem has been pretty much sidelined. And among the rabbinate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) has the message of Chanukah likewise become grossly malformed.
As was presented here a while back, one prominent member of the YCT rabbinate equates Chanukah with the legalization of same-sex marriage. And last week, a YCT leader, perplexed by the apparent clash of the message of Chanukah with his open, pluralistic religious orientation, declared that Chazal actually rejected the hashkafah of the Chashmona’im, instead favoring the values of pluralism and openness. Invoking a very radical understanding of Chanukah, we are told:
The rabbis were giving a clear indication of their distaste for the Chashmonaim and their approach… Chazal did everything they could to squelch this holiday of zealotry and intra-Jewish fighting. Ultimately compromising with a people who wanted or needed the heroics of the Maccabees marked on the calendar, they allowed for a much muted holiday… But Chazal’s approach to Chanukah espouses openness to the world around us and tolerance of difference. In lighting the candles, we open up to the world around us with the light of Torah and mitzvoth guiding us in our exploration of the other. Let us celebrate this beautiful chag by remembering the pride of the Chashmonaim but also the openness of Chazal to the outside world…
Another well-known far-left rabbi, who prides himself as the first openly gay/same-sex married Orthodox rabbi, writing on the Neo-Conservative Morethodoxy website, has just posited that we reinvent Chanukah in our own image, as it were.
After a lengthy summary of some of the Chanukah accounts from the Book of Maccabees, with a secular twist from an historian, we are advised that:
Instead of eight days of presents, (a coarse imitation of both Christmas and the materialist society we live in) why not remake Chanukah as an eight day celebration of diaspora Jewish culture? We could celebrate a different aspect of Jewish culture each day—food, literature, art, music, dance, philosophy, wisdom and faith. Perhaps Chanukah is the time of year that we ought to look at the tensions between our desire to be part of the larger world and our mandate to be a unique and special people. Such a remaking of Chanukah would not make us comfortable allies with zealots, but it might well allow us to ask ourselves some challenging questions about Jewish authenticity and purpose.
Then, the inner spiritual message of Chanukah as elucidated by the Chassidic masters is presented, but the Morethodoxy writer suggests that this inner spiritual message should replace the approach to Chanukah as conveyed by Chazal:
Chanukah in this Hasidic key isn’t about the war against the Greeks, or miraculous oil, but its also not about a cultural rededication to outward expressions of Jewish practice or observance. It is about rededication to a form of Jewish life that begins with a recovery of an authentic self, a rediscovery of one’s deeper sense of unique purpose. The light that for the rabbinic sages served to publicize an ancient miraculous renewal, was turned into a flashlight leading inwardly on a journey to the soul.
I am more than confident that the great rebbes who plumbed the inner meaning of Chanukah would be aghast to read that a Morethodoxy writer has presented their thoughts as a rejection of the basics of Chanukah.
The writer concludes:
Perhaps the most exciting element of Chanukah then is its quicksilver nature. It renews itself by reconstituting the original material of military and spiritual resistance into dazzling new forms of cultural and spiritual creativity. And so, perhaps its fundamental image is that of a rededication as a reboot, a recovery of something lost, a restoration that is also a renewall like the rekindling of a lamp with an ember found deep inside us.
In less eloquent terms, Chanukah is really whatever we decide it to be, according to this writer.
In stark contrast to the above Neo-Conservative approaches, let us turn to the words of Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik zt”l:
Just as the Ner Tamid (Perpetual Flame) was the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah (Manifestation of the Divine Presence) in the Beis Ha-Mikdash, so, too, the Ner Chanukah also serves as the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among Jews all over the world. The Ner Chanukah, itself, embodies the Ner Tamid of the Mikdash. Thus, the purpose of the mitzvah of Pirsumei Nisa (Publicizing the Miracle), by Chanukah, is to demonstrate the presence of Giluy Shechinah (Revelation of the Divine Preence), through the lighting of the Ner Chanukah. The light of the Ner Chanukah is the medium of revelation of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews. In the same manner as the Ner Tamid tells the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews in the Mikdash, so too, the Ner Chanukah states the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah in the present generation.
The main conflict between the Hellenists and the Jews centered around the concept of Bechiras Yisrael (Chosenness of the Jewish People). The Hellenists wanted the Jews to abandon their awareness of Bechiras Yisrael. The Hellenists, and later the Romans, hated the Jews because the Jews believed in Bechiras Yisrael. Thus, the function of Ner Chanukah is to remind us of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah…
The Shechinah addresses itself through the Ner Chanukah, and the Ner Chanukah demonstrates that the Shechinah resides among the Jews: “.עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל” (“The Western Lamp of the Menorah in the Beis Ha-Mikdash is testimony that the Divine Presence resides among the Jewish People.” – Shabbos 26b) This concept is the crux of the entire Torah. Thus, the Rambam used special language (explained earlier in this shiur – AG) with regard to Chanukah.
Furthermore, הנרות הללו קודש הם (“These lights are holy”) means that one should react to the Ner Chanukah in the same manner that Moses reacted to the fire of the Burning Bush, where he immediately sought to investigate that strange phenomena: “.אסורה ואראה את המראה הגדול הזה” – “I will detour and investigate this strange sight.” Our reaction to the Ner Chanukah should be similar to that. One must investigate and analyze the purpose of Nes Chanukah. The Rambam, thus, repeatedly emphasizes that Ner Chanukah is not to be taken as simply another mitzvah d’Rabbanan (rabbinical enactment), but is to be regarded as one of the fundamental mitzvos which symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jews.
In an essay presented in Sefer Mi’Peninei Ha-Rav (Chanukah, s. 1), Rav Soloveitchik explains that the author of Book of Maccabees recorded the historical events of Chanukah without appreciating their profundity; it was a superficial narrative. Rav Soloveitchik elaborates that the crux of Chanukah is the battle against desecration and defilement, and the “aliyah mi-tumah” (“emergence from impurity”) on the part of the nation, after the Hellenist Jews, who were the primary adversary, were overtaken by the Chashmona’im and recommitted to Torah.
Chanukah compels us to think and act as Torah Jews under all circumstances, in the face of all cultures and environments. Let us recommit and rededicate ourselves to this charge, and may we soon merit to again have the Ner Tamid and experience a complete Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah.