A Chanukah Primer With a Pretext

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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!

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12 Responses

  1. One Christian's perspective says:

    E. Fink: “Jacobson makes the colossal error if comparing our most minor holiday with their biggest holiday. And all because of a coincidence of the calendar.

    I wonder what he thinks of Easter as compared to Pesach or Thanksgiving as compared to Sukkos…”

    Does it really matter what Jacobson thinks – someone said he was a decent atheist – whatever that means ? IMHO, any event in human history where God reaches down from heaven and makes a statement in the lives of mere humans is a significant event. How can one call any of these events minor is beyond my imagination. Is Chanukah a single minor holiday …… really ? Could it not be coupled with all the other events where righteous men participated in the dedication(s) of the Temple ? Could it not be a reminder of the God who is the light of the world and the One who brings light into the hearts and minds of humans by His grace.

    In regards to the other comments about Christmas and Easter, please be aware that they are linked – one came first so the other would follow by plan and purpose. Not all celebrations that you see in the gentile world consider the physical or spiritual significance of these two events. Both took place in Israel and there were no Christmas trees present. A few magi from the East came a few years later bearing gifts.

    Please consider Chanukah as one of the ultimate acts of faith that God bestowed on man when he had nothing ……. but a desire to honor God in ways that were pleasing to Him. This historic event, years ago, was a prayer acted out in word, thought, intent and deed. It pleased God and He did not see it as a minor event.

  2. YEA says:

    All in favor of Rav Adlerstein recording and posting more shiurim, comment “Aye!”

    [YA – You’ll have to convince my employer! I used to do much, much more, till I got shifted from Yeshiva of LA to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Now I have to restrict my serious discussion to Presbyterians!]

  3. Gershon says:

    Can someone email the chanuka shiur to me? I can’t access the linked site. Thank you

  4. mb says:

    Dr.Bill
    “As to MB, I was reacting (humorously) ONLY to the word MANY!”

    Just a figure of speech.

    However another Shul going atheist was the outstanding philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin A’h.
    He once asked his student, Chief Rabbi Sacks(who had a PHD in philosophy and before the Rabbinate was a university professor) how he of all people, a trained philosopher, could believe in God? The CR replied exquisitely. “think of me as a lapsed heretic!”

  5. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Alderstein, I hope we are reading the same Navi! The debate over dating the second temple period relates to the Persian era prior to the rise of Greece. The Channukah events occured ~ 150 years after Greece conquered Persia and Malachi lived during the Perisan period. The era of “run-up to Hellene” tells us little about the period of Channukah.

    As to MB, I was reacting (humorously) ONLY to the word MANY!

    [YA – I think that Rav Nebenzahl’s point was that if the yesod of the period was faulty, the rest was not going to be much better – at least not without the intervention of some dramatic midcourse correction. Readers are directed to his words.]

  6. DF says:

    Rabbi Adlersein . . . dont be so humorless. Jacobson’s piece was a fun little bit of fluff, nothing more.

    [YA – 1) You are not the only one to suggest this, and you may be right! You are in the minority of those who have reacted, which doesn’t in any way mean that you are wrong. Still, readers Jewish and not will get their only take on the inner workings of Chanukah from that piece. 2) If I had followed your take, would I have had an excuse to post some unadulterated Torah on CC?]

  7. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Alderstein writes: “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.”

    MB writes: “I think you are taking Howard Jacobson a bit too seriously. And like many decent atheists, he is a member of an Orthodox Synagogue!”

    Rabbi: A navi? We have little recorded history in traditional sources from almost 200 years before chanukkah to 75 years after! Jacobson misses the point because he concentrates on an attempt to find something grand, where chazal created something sublime. The nes of the pakh hashemen, unreported in historical sources, represents the (re) dedication of the menorah, a representation of Divine Presence. It is that Presence of the Shekhinah, that chazal made central to observance in the home, a subtle message that is often lost. (Many modern day scholars note that both in the chumash and in later works of the Neviim, hashraat haShekhinah, Chanukat HaBayis and lighting the menorah are often mentioned in the same verse.) Hashraat haShekhinah is rarely obvious, a lesson Mr. Jacobson doers not seem to appreciate! Life need not always be a grand event to be meaningful!

    MB: Not knowing the gentleman, i tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, as you seem inclined to do. But as a member of an orthodox shul, I would prefer you give us the benefit of the doubt as well; there are not that many atheists in my midst!

    [YA 1) Maybe we are not reading the same navi. See R Nebenzahl’s Sichos on Bereishis pgs. שו-שז for his read of what Malachi tells us of the religious atmosphere in the run-up to Hellene 2) I know MB. If he says that Jacobson is an atheist, Jacobson is an atheist. Apparently, in London even atheists go to shul. In Jacobson’s case, he happens to go to the Chief Rabbi’s shul. Listening to Jonathan Sacks is probably more edifying, even for atheists, than many other things they may be wont to do.]

  8. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >totally obscured the doubtless massive dissention from halachic judaism

    This is a mischaracterization of the situation in which chazal operated during this period. First, it is not clear what was the numeric breakdown of the factions. We know that the pharisees and saduccees were the two largest groups. Further, the battle with the other factions was not regarding “dissent from halachic judaism” but rather regarding what WAS the halacha and who are its legitimate interpreters. Every faction during the late second temple period had their own halacha – none were antinomean.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    There’s a lot of food for thought about the deep significance of Hanukkah, from the Bnai Yissaschar ZY”A, the Sefas Emes ZY”A, and other great sages throughout our history. I’m rather tired of hearing about how minor a holiday this is; it may be minor compared to the Shalosh Regalim, for example, but it still has great intrinsic importance and a great timely message for us.

  10. lacosta says:

    5] the internal struggle

    —it’s most interesting that chazal, living in a time of Pharisaic minority status amongst many competing theologies and factions, totally obscured the doubtless massive dissention from halachic judaism [as we would put it today] — hinted only at ‘zeidim beyad oskei toratecha’…. chanuka falls after vayeishev in which we learn habor reik ain bo mayim– the tora teaches to hint at the bad [especially in that 1st major milchemet achim] , rather than to bring the internecine fighting , and temporary quashing of deviant factions of our brethren, to the forefront……

  11. mb says:

    I think you are taking Howard Jacobson a bit too seriously. And like many decent atheists, he is a member of an Orthodox Synagogue!

  12. E. Fink says:

    Jacobson makes the colossal error if comparing our most minor holiday with their biggest holiday. And all because of a coincidence of the calendar.

    I wonder what he thinks of Easter as compared to Pesach or Thanksgiving as compared to Sukkos…