Turning Chanukah on Its Head

Tisha B’Av is the most ideologically challenging day on the Jewish calendar for secular Zionists (and even for some religious Zionists). Messages of the Jewish People being in a current state of Galus (Exile), imagery of Churban (Destruction) persisting in the Land of Israel and its capital city, and affirmations of our nation still being unredeemed cause great discomfort for those who feel that the Geulah (Redemption) has been basically completed, or that its need has been obviated, with the declaration of Israeli statehood.

In a similar vein, Chanukah is quite a challenge to Jews who favor assimilation. For most secular Jews, Chanukah’s message perforce must be modified to be one of general freedom, personal and cultural expression, tolerance, openness, egalitarianism, Jewish might and bravery, and yes, “Jewish Christmas”.  At the recent White House Chanukah Party, Reform Rabbi Susan Talve explained what she thinks Chanukah represents: “I stand here to light these lights that say no to the darkness of islamophobia, and homophobia and transphobia and racism and anti-Semitism and all the other isms that dare to dim our hope.” The values of the Chashmona’im (Maccabees), who fought even against their fellow Jews (the Hellenists) to preserve Torah and Mitzvos and who saw the encroachment of Greek culture as an existential threat to Judaism, get totally lost and buried, as they are not consistent with the values of assimilated Jewry. It is very sad, as the true meaning of Chanukah is replaced by an ethos which diametrically contradicts the core significance of the holiday.

Unfortunately, the Tisha B’Av/Chanukah dilemma is not only faced by Jews who are unaware of the great teachings of authentic Judaism and who do not relate to traditional Jewish practices and values. On the contrary, the dilemma is faced even more acutely by Orthodox Jews who have adopted the mindset of secular society. In fact, the problem is magnified far greater in such cases, as Jews who claim fealty to Torah and its ideals while at the same time embracing the doctrines of cosmopolitan society cannot easily accept the Chanukah messages of rejection of secular values, of proclaiming Jewish chosenness, and of purification from the spiritual contamination of a respected and advanced non-Jewish culture. For such Jews, Chanukah is a downright conflict, and it compels creative solutions that distance it from perceptions of parochialism and the spurning of secular enlightenment. For such Jews, Chanukah must be redefined.

Last Chanukah, we read of rabbis on the edge of Orthodoxy associating Chanukah with the legalization of gay marriage, with openness to the values of the outside world, and with the celebration of Jewish culture, such as “food, literature, art, music, dance…”

The angst precipitated by the true meaning of Chanukah among some rabbis in this category has led this year to even more creative reinterpretations of the Chanukah message. One such new reinterpretation, penned by an Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva, goes like this:

The Greek philosophy that Alexander (the Great) brought to Jerusalem became part of the Torah. What Shimon (Ha-Tzaddik, who met Alexander when the latter came to Yerushalayim) was able to do was to encounter the world and take the best that it has to offer and appropriate those ideas into Jewish life.

Chanukah celebrates the ability to engage the world and find aspects of modernity that are meant to be incorporated into our lives…

This year, when you light your Chanukah candles and share the story of the cruise (sic) of oil with your family, take a moment to thank God for the blessings and challenges of modernity… May we be granted the wisdom of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik to understand which values of the 21st century are meant to be part of the Torah.

What is the basis for the radical idea that Chanukah celebrates the incorporation of secular values into Torah life? The writer of this d’var Torah claims to derive it from (his reading of) the Rambam:

The Mishnah in Avos (1:2) states: He (Shimon Ha-Tzaddik) used to say, “Upon three things does the world rest: upon Torah, upon Avodah (Divine Service), and upon acts of kindness.” The Rambam explains the phrase “Torah” as “המדע, שהיא התורה” (“Mada, which is Torah”). The word “Mada” means knowledge, and the Rambam most likely refers here to knowledge of God, for he likewise uses the word “Mada” in his Mishneh Torah in reference to Divine knowledge, entitling the first volume thereof “Sefer Ha-Mada” – “Book of Divine Knowledge”.

However, the Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva shockingly renders the Rambam’s phrase “המדע, שהיא התורה” as “Greek philosophy” (!). This rosh yeshiva concludes that Shimon Ha-Tzaddik was declaring that one should incorporate “the philosophy of the day”/”Greek philosophy” into Torah:

Rambam says that when Shimon Ha-Tzaddik uses the word “Torah” what he means is “המדע” – Greek philosophy. For Rambam the Arabic term “el-alam” (“Ha-Mada” in Hebrew) refers to the philosophy of his day.

In Rambam’s read Shimon may have defeated Alexander, but the Greek philosophy that Alexander brought to Jerusalem became part of the Torah. What Shimon was able to do was to encounter the world and take the best that it has to offer and appropriate those ideas into Jewish life.

Readers are encouraged to consult the complete d’var Torah in order to see the progression of ideas, but it is undeniable that this approach and reinterpretation literally turn Chanukah on its head, transforming it from a commemoration marking the preservation of authentic and unadulterated Judaism into a celebration of the adoption of secular values into Torah life and thought. It is chilling.

A few days before Chanukah, a group of prominent rabbis at the edge of Orthodoxy issued a sweeping proclamation, entitled Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity – To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians. The proclamation overturns the precedent rulings and policies of Torah authorities of the previous generations regarding the appropriate parameters for interfaith dialogue. (Please read here for details of these rulings and policies.) But this new proclamation then goes much further:

As did Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi, we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies… Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal (sic) mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth… We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us: the ethical monotheism of Abraham; the relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who loves and cares for all of us; Jewish Sacred Scriptures; a belief in a binding tradition; and the values of life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace… Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption… We believe that G-d employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant. In imitating G-d, Jews and Christians must offer models of service, unconditional love and holiness. We are all created in G-d’s Holy Image, and Jews and Christians will remain dedicated to the Covenant by playing an active role together in redeeming the world.

The proclamation, for lack of better words, hijacks and severely distorts the words of the Rambam (Hil. Melachim 11:4 – uncensored edition) in order to fulfill its agenda; the same is true for the other sources invoked in the proclamation, which are drastically taken out of context and/or misrepresented.

While we must leave the issue of dialogue and cooperation with the Church to Orthodox organizations such as Agudath Israel, the OU and the RCA, who maintain good working relationships with Christian leadership and who adhere to the mandates of leading poskim (halachic decisors), and we do not in any way direct this discussion to our Christian friends, we must internally address the problem of rabbis breaking rank with the authoritative representatives of Orthodoxy and unilaterally changing the discourse in very material ways.

Catholic leadership was surprised by the extent to which the rabbis who signed the above proclamation affirmed Christianity, as we read in this article of December 8, the third day of Chanukah:

The statement has met with appreciation from Christian theologians, including Michael Peppard, a Fordham University theology professor. He noted on the blog of Commonweal, the Catholic journal, that while the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism — representing most American Jews — have long engaged in interfaith theological discussions, Orthodox Judaism has in the past found such dialogue problematic.

By calling Christianity “neither accident nor error,” Peppard says this Orthodox rabbinical statement is going further than a similar document titled “Dabru Emet,” signed by mostly by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in 2000.

It may be that “Orthodox Judaism is in the midst of a serious reckoning with the fundamental tenets of Christianity,” Peppard wrote. “This theologically compelling and provocative statement is quite a 50th anniversary present for Nostra Aetate.”

Several of the proclamation’s rabbinic signatories were then interviewed by the Jewish week, which reported:

In supporting the CJCUC statement, Rabbi Riskin and other signatories argued this week that the Christian Church of the 1960s is not the Christian Church of 2015, and that the bans on interfaith work issued by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (the leader of non-chasidic charedi Jewry) and by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (leader of Modern Orthodox Jews) do not apply.

“Everything in the statement is fully consonant with Jewish law,” Rabbi Eugene Korn, academic director of CJCUC, told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “Jews have real enemies today — but Christians are no longer among them. Both communities must defeat the same assaults on our faiths from radical secularism and intolerant religious extremism.”

As was noted in the aforementioned Arutz Sheva article, Rav Feinstein, Rav Soloveitchik, and the other halachic authorities who weighed in on this matter lived and were active for decades after the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, and these preeminent rabbonim did not in any way retract their positions.

The question of objectivity of several of the signatories of the proclamation – which is the elephant in the room – cannot be ignored. One of the signatories, whose organization, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), issued the proclamation, produced the highly-controversial “Rabbi Jesus” video, which this signatory later claimed did not represent his views, alleging that his views were misrepresented in the video due to poor editing. This same rabbi retracted remarks he made previously that, “it’s critical that we resurrect God in this generation.” This rabbi’s organization is documented to receive handsome donations from several Christian ministries.

This Chanukah, rabbis who identify themselves as Orthodox have negated the message of the holiday and proffered a version of Judaism that is foreign. These rabbis have introduced cloudiness and obscurity into the lucid and pure vision of faith and Jewish identity that Chanukah celebrates and energizes.

Readers are highly encouraged to please listen to this compelling, must-hear shmuess of Rav Aharon Kahn, shlita, delivered on the third night of Chaukah at YU, in which the genuine values of Chanukah are robustly and dynamically elucidated and analyzed.

On Chanukah, we are charged to return to the core values of Torah and to remove from our worldview and personalities anything that conflicts with pure Torah principles and attitudes. Chanukah, as its Hebrew root implies, is a rededication to the genuine, untouched foundations of our Mesorah (Torah Tradition). The Tradition is not only comprised of technical laws and observances; rather, it encompasses the entire frame of reference, orientation and outlook of the Jew. (Please see here.)

We conclude with the timeless words of Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, delivered during Chanukah 35 years ago:

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 (Chanukah Lamp or Flame) 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 Yisroel (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 Yisroel. 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 the Ner 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…

Anyone who knows the story of Chanukah knows also that, following the Hasmonean victory, the entire K’nesses Yisroel (Congregation of the Jewish People) underwent a vast transformation vis a vis their relationship with God and Torah. Prior to this victory, the relationship between God and the Jews was tenuous. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became Hellenists, to such an extent that they defiled the Temple and the like. After the Hasmonean victory, and after the miracle of the Menorah, things changed drastically. Jews began to believe in Bechiras Yisroel, observe the Mitzvos, etc.

The gezeiros (enactments) of the Beis Din Shel Chashmona’im (Hasmonean Rabbinical Court), relating to arayos (illicit relationships) and intermarriage, were instituted in reaction to the large number of intermarriages and assimilation. Intermarriage was so common that even the son of Yehoshua the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) married the non-Jewish daughter of the leader of the Kusim (Kutheans)…

Prior to the victory, many Jews refused to observe even the most basic Mitzvos. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 46A) relates the story of one who rode his horse on Shabbos. The Beis Din Shel Chashmona’im punished him severely. The miracle of Chanukah changed this entire mood, and the Jews abandoned Hellenism for the most part and adhered to the laws of the Torah. It is for this reason that Chanukah is regarded as a great holiday.

The Pirsumei Nisa on Chanukah is thus not so much directed at the miracle of the candles, but is to demonstrate that the Jews returned from the brink of total assimilation and adopted the Torah, and reestablished their unique relationship with God. This reconfirmation can, and will, occur again through Teshuva.

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15 Responses

  1. Marc Rnnie says:

    Per the logic of this article, philo-Semetic, pro-Israel Christians in the 21st century are equivalent to pagan Hellenized Syrians making war on Ancient Israel and distinguished Israeli rabbis, including Rabbi Riskin, co-founder of Efrat and champion of Soviet Jewish dissidents are equivalent to a rabbi focused on the threat of “transphobia”. The author continues by strongly implying that Rabbi Riskin advanced his position, not based on good faith and judgement, but on “handsome donations from several Christian ministries”.

    Given the author’s embrace of personal attack rather than analysis, it would be interesting to compare his record of courage and self-sacrifice with that of Rabbi Riskin.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      We now see that both heterodox clergy and those allied with or clearly identified with OO now have hijacked the message of Chanukah. We should never be surprised at the attempts of heterodox clergy to bend the message of Chanukah or any other halacha like a pretzel so as to suit their PC POV. What we should be ready to reject is the attempt by advocates of OO to rewrite the words of Chazal to suit their POV with respect to the message of Chanukah that we must guard against attempts by any secular culture to infiltrate and water Torah and TSBP, as well as the meaning of what it means to be Asher Kidshanu BMitzvosav, the Am HaNivchar amd how to be HaMavdil Bein Kodesh LChol, which the latest proclamation as to interfaith ecumenical dialogue simply ignores.

      We have previously discussed and debated R Riskin’s evolution in halacha and hashkafa from his earlier days as a rebbe in JSS and a pioneering rav at Lincoln Square to his current stances today, with the clear conclusion that many of us who remember R Riskin’s roles as a rebbe and a rav, myself included, do not recognize the Rabbi Riskin who was a great rebbe and rav in JSS and NYC in the stances that R Riskin has taken today on a wide range of issues, and consider the evolution of R Riskin to the realm of the far LW of MO and OO as a tragedy for the MO world.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    The most basic theme of Hanukkah is total national rejection of secular and religious alternatives to halachic Judaism. This makes the holiday a true challenge for various large sectors of today’s Jewry, so it’s no surprise how many phony makeovers have been tried on it. Things even turn into their opposites, as when Olympic-style sporting events are named after our brave Kohanim of old, who staunchly opposed athletics. Or as when modern-day Hellenists pose as authentic bearers of our sacred traditions while spouting every PC cliche in the book. How many of us have sung “Mi Y’mallel” on Hanukkah unaware of its subversive meaning that substitutes human strongmen for HaShem?

    I’m reminded of all the modern “haggadahs” and “midrashim” and “life cycle events” that the charlatans throw at us.

    • Y. Ben-David says:

      When you say that the “Kohanim of old” opposed athletics, you need to clarify what you are trying to convey. If you mean a “cult of sport” such as existed in Berlin where the sports stadium was called the “sportpalast”, then we know that the Kohamim of old certainly opposed that. However, the soldiers of the Hashmonaim were certainly physically fit and they no doubt participated in athletic games to build themselves up and so I don’t think the Kohanim of old would have any objection to that.

      • Bob Miller says:

        In ancient times, basic living involved a lot of physical labor and exercise, so able-bodied Jews probably had no need for organized athletics Military training is a separate category. We have no info on how they trained and drilled.

      • Y. Ben-David says:

        I am sorry but I am afraid I don’t see what is “unJewish” about athletic competition and team sports. I think it is likely that things like foot races or even wrestling events (Rafael Halperin-style) were common as forms of entertainment and physical fitness in ancient Israel. Since the army is the ultimate form of team-work it would not be surprising if the ancient Jewish armies would encourage team sports in order to instill group pride and cooperation. What we Jews opposed was the Hellenistic cult of the body and the gymnasium with its accompanying immodest and even homosexual values.

      • Ben Bradley says:

        If you don’t see what’s unJewish about athletic competition then I suggest reading R Matis Weinberg’s book on Chanuka for a lucid and sophiscated analysis. Suffice for now to point out that Chazal see the ancient Greek mindset and value system as being in direct contrast that of the Torah. The western tradition of competitive athletics is directly derived from its Greek roots, even before the modern Olympics were started, and is reflective of the Greek mindset.
        When Chazal express their antipathy to Yavan and its associated exile, that is absolutely part of what they are opposing.
        Chazal observe that we never fully left galus yavan and that it is incorporated in our current galus. Which means, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, that failure to see the contrast probably means you’re face to face with your Inner Greek, may we all merit to meet him.

      • Y. Ben-Davidb says:

        I’ll have to think about your request that I forgive you for calling me a Hellenist simply because I have stated there is no problem with “frum Jews” like yourself participating in team sports. But you will also have to ask forgiveness from all the yeshiva students who play soccer and baseketball on Friday afternooons.

      • Ben Bradley says:

        I didn’t meantion team sports, only competitive athletics. Different issue. And I’m not calling anyone a Hellenist, just noting that everyone has a point at which they think in Greek as it were, that’s part and parcel of galus yavan, regardless of ‘frumkeit’.

      • Moshe Hillson says:

        Who said the Hasmoneans were militarily fit (as opposed to physically fit)?
        Doesn’t “Al haNissim” say “the mighty (were delivered) in the hands of the weak”?

      • Y. Ben-David says:

        I am sure you know that the Seleucids outnumbered the Jewish fighters and had the “armored tanks” of that era, i.e. elephants which the Jews were lacking. It doesn’t mean that the Jews weren’t good fighters or well trained.

  3. wfb says:

    Re: incorporation of Greek wisdom into Torah, see Rav Amiel’s דרשות אל עמי starting here http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=31851&st=&pgnum=8

  4. dr. bill says:

    We are still uncovering more and more material about the events around Chanukah, the limited response of chazal and the process by which its halakhic rituals developed. Even the basic sugyah in Shabbat faces difficult textual challenges. This has led to many questionable reconstructions and interpretations. The extrapolation made from Rambam on Avot 1:2 is completely consistent with the way many (rabbis and) scholars present Rambam’s overall view that many elements of Greek science and philosophy are intrinsic elements required for the knowledge of God and his Torah. Exactly what chazal opposed and what they appropriated from Greek wisdom remains unclear. Rambam’s view can be debated, but it is unquestionably more reasonable than those who treat all Greek wisdom as a foreign weed to be avoided in toto, and use the story of Chanukah as their proof text.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      You can easily find that the message of Chanukah can and is distorted easily R”L, by those who emphasize the Nes Pach Shemen at the expense of the miraculous military victory and vice versa. However, look at the comments of the Netziv in HaEmek Sheelah on Parshas Vayishlach , the Pri Chadash and the Meiri and you will see that celebration of the military victory per se was a basis for celebration on the first day.

      Dr Bill-in Hilcos Taanis, the SA records a fast day to commemorate the date that the Torah was translated into Greek. Yes, there are conflicting views as to that event, but SA records the day as a fast day. There are numerous Aggadic passages where Greek values such as man being born perfect, aesthetic beauty, and man being a creature of fate are viewed as whollly antithetical to Jewish values and to such bedrock Mitzvos as Shabbos, Bris Milah and Kiddush HaChodesh.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/195761/vatican-ii-at-50 must reading by R D David Berger on the continuing vitality and relevance of “Confrontation

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