Hanukkah Message 2019

It’s time for a personal long-standing tradition, a Hanukkah message. I wrote the first one in 1972 for the University of Wisconsin Jewish student newspaper. In it I explained that in reality, Hanukkah celebrates not a victory of a small band of Jewish partisans over the hated Syrian government, but rather commemorates a civil war in which various Jewish factions were pitted against one another.That Hanukkah, I entered the Hillel Foundation intending to celebrate with my fellow students only to find a “guest” had been invited to light the Hanukkah candelabra: Rabbi Schmudken who had recently assumed the job of creating a Chabad House in Madison. R. Schmudken saw me (we had previously met), arched his eyebrows and intoned, “Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we celebrate the Hasmoneans.” I just chuckled as I knew he was just kibbitzing (kidding), but it does suggest a bit of tension between religious sensibility and historical reality.

The greatest irony, however, is that the rabbinate represents in essence the very opposite of Hasmonean culture. Notice that I used the word “Jewish” to describe the partisans who were striking against the Syrian overlords and their “Jewish” allies. But what does that word “Jewish” mean in the context of these times? These were people struggling for territory they regarded as theirs by Divine right, and above all a place where they believed God is somehow manifest. They believed in sacrificing animals and offering grain for the sustenance of God. For them, all authority was vested in the Priesthood. When they did assume power, for many years they took the role of High Priest and only later that of King.

Contrast that with the religion that both I and R. Schmudken participate in. For us, the priests (cohanim) have a greatly diminished role–and virtually no authority whatsoever. Instead we place authority in the hands of educated people we call rabbis who have not the slightest necessity to be related to the kings, prophets or priests of old. We seek our religious center not in the Temple of Jerusalem, but in synagogues which we can build anywhere we live. We honor the requirements of sacrifice by a system of virtual replacements–for example, when we slaughter animals for meat, we use the symbolism of the priesthood and the Temple in pouring out the blood and then drawing out even more with salt. When we bake bread we tear off a bit of dough and burn it as a symbolic acknowledgment of the grain offerings.

The institution of the rabbinate did not exist in the days of Judah the Maccabee, and Josephus reports that members of the Hasmonean dynasty persecuted the Pharisees who are often imagined to be the ancestors of the rabbis. Once the Temple was gone, the landscape was cleared for people other than the priests to claim authority. By the time two centuries had passed without a Temple, the rabbis were growing in number and authority–simply because people were persuaded that the rabbis knew the right way to do things. Eventually these rabbis set their principles down in a series of books: their interpretations of Scripture and most importantly the various building blocks of the vast library called the Talmud. All of this became the rabbinic claim to supersede the priesthood. And it is the religious practice first established in the Talmud, adjudicated by rabbis, that remains the dominant form of Judaism today. In a very substantial sense, rabbinic Judaism is Judaism, and there really was something else before the rabbis assumed their authoritative roles.

The institution of the holiday of Hanukkah perfectly illustrates what happened. When the Maccabees had their victory and retook the Temple of Jerusalem, they instituted a coronation ceremony for their priest-kings. These Hasmoneans, as the family dynasty became known, felt a need to justify their claim to power. The dedication holiday they held for the Temple lasted for eight days most likely to emulate the Temple dedication festival of Solomon described in 2 Chronicles 7:8ff.

When the rabbis fixed the celebration of Hanukkah, they did so with a tale of a miracle: a candelabra which had enough oil for one day but which lasted for the eight necessary for re-dedicating the Temple. They said not a word about Hasmoneans, this holiday had nothing to with them but everything to do asserting their own authority over the religion. The rabbis also fixed the time for Hanukkah very close to the Winter Solstice, perhaps to divert attention away from Pagan and later Christian adoptions of celebrations of that event.

Today, of course, every Jewish child learns about the heroic Hasmoneans. If the rabbis buried the history of the Hasmoneans, how did this come to be? Therein lies a great irony. While the rabbis made no effort to preserve the historical works of Josephus, and likewise had no use for the books of the Maccabees, Christians did. Christians even regarded the Maccabees 1 and 2 as Scripture. About a thousand years after the time of the Maccabees, Jews living as minorities both in Christian and Muslim lands felt great pressure to justify their historical glories. The victories of the Hasmoneans which they learned about through Christian copyists became a useful tool for asserting the great military prowess of ancient Jews. One Jewish author, probably living in Italy in the 10th century, created a mash-up of Josephus with various legendary materials and called his book Sefer Yossipon. Yossipon was a different general than Josephus, one who could not be tarred with the label of traitor to the Jews. But of course, essentially all the historical material in the book is plagiarized from Josephus.

And so we came full circle. The rabbis who initially suppressed the Hasmoneans recreated them and the modern holiday of Hanukkah emerged: a solstice festival which combines both the original myth of the eight days of oil with the military gallantry of the Hasmoneans.

But you see, by the 10th century, the rabbis knew they had won. No priests or royals existed to threaten their authority. So let the good times roll!

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