I just finished studying with Prof. Noam Zion, who lectured on R. David Hartman’s take on Chanukah and the number of ideas he presented has left me jazzed and excited to be doing some small teachings over this holiday. The teachings, to a large extent, threw many of the “understandings” I grew up with out the window. I want to share some of this with you:
Chanukah clearly was never about religious freedom. Matisyahu (Mattathias) was unafraid to kill a Jew who sacrificed at Zeus’ altar, after all. Matisyahu wanted freedom to follow the Jewish God, not freedom for anyone to practice as they saw fit.
Chanukah was not about the cruse of oil that burned for eight days, for which I say, Baruch Hashem: what a silly holiday that would be. And, according to Hartman, it was not about making peace either, the interpretation often given for the ancient rabbis’ silence about the Book of Maccabees from the Talmud. However, we do still read the books, including its summary in Maimonides’ writings from the 12th Century.
He reminds us of the crimes of the Assyrians against the Jews: first that we were prevented from studying Torah, exercising our rituals of brit milah (circumcision) and kashrut (keeping kosher)—doing what made us Jews.
But also important was the second crime: that Antiochus and his men extended their hands against Jewish property and Jewish daughters. Zion tells a midrash recorded in the middle ages and again in the 19th century, that is set within the context that before a Jewish woman was given to her husband at marriage, she must be given to the local governor to have his way with her (rape her) first. Hannah, the sister of Judah and his brothers, stood at her wedding, before she was to be sent off to the governor’s bed, and chastised her brothers for letting this happen, for not standing up for her, as Shimon and Levi did for Dinah.
Without the redemption of Israel by the Maccabees, when the Hasmoneans were able to restore political autonomy for Jews, we would continue to live passive lives, at the mercy of the prevailing power. Without political and economic autonomy, people have no dignity.
This leads to the halakha about placing our chanukiot (Chanukah lamps) in our windows, at our doors, in the public sphere. This symbolizes our choice to stand up for our values, our choice to practice what is good in Judaism, to be safe in our homes, to assure that our daughters and sisters are safe in their bodies. Chanukah is a holiday about standing up for our values, announcing our identities, not needing to hide in closets, basements, attics. (At the same time, a separate halakha (law) tells us NOT to publicize it if it actually puts our life in danger: torah is to live by, Maimonides teaches, not to die by for no good reason.)
So the neis (miracle) of Chanukah is not the cruse of oil, it is the gevurah (courage) to stand up for our identity and values, and the gevurah to defend yourself, your people, your temple. Just as the Maccabees, a small group of fighters who were willing to stand up changed history, so can we do the same. And this miracle can extend to the courage required to conquer our own anger, our libido, our pride to create shalom bayit (peace in our homes), peace in our communities.
As we light each candle each night, increasing holiness, and standing up for our identities, for our dignity and for being able to conquer our own internal tyrants, I share what Prof. Zion calls the Pluralist Manifesto for Chanukah, a writing of Rav Kook:
Everyone must know and understand that within burns a candle
And that no one’s candle is like his or her fellow’s candle
And no one lacks their own candle
Everyone must know and understand it is their task to work to reveal the light of that candle in the public realm
And to ignite it until it is a great flame and illuminate the whole world.
May we each ignite our own candles, illuminate the world and see justice reign. Chag Chanukah Sameach! Happy Chanukah!