Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Channukah with a twist

So Chanukah is upon us. Many people call this their favorite Jewish holiday, and even among those who don't call it their "favorite" I have yet to meet a Jew who doesn't really like the holiday a lot (and I have met a lot of Jews in my time…)

So we'll sing the songs, spin the dreidle, eat the oily delicious potato pancakes, light the menorah, and of course tell the story of Chanukah. The story of how the heavily outnumbered and undertrained and under-armed Jews defeated the mighty well-armored, well-trained and huge Greek army driving them out of Jerusalem and reclaiming the Holy Temple. But when it came time to dedicate the Temple (which is where the Hebrew word Chanukah comes from), there was only enough oil to burn for one day. So the Jews lit the small paltry amount of oil and got cracking on making more oil from olives - a process which takes 8 days. And lo and behold - God made a miracle for us and the small amount of oil enough for one day only managed to burn for the entire 8 days until our ancestors were able to bring more oil.

That's the story we know and love and re-tell every year, right?

And I love that story. As an religiously observant Jew, I love feeling that God has occasionally over the course of history brought forth his hand to help further us along a path that we have chosen of our own free will (a topic for another blog at another time).

But I am also a believer in intellectual honesty, and in trying to recognize things for what they really are, as well as for what they are not.

And I think that there is a reasonable chance that the miracle of small jug of oil, containing enough to burn for only one day yet burning for eight – never really happened.

The best (i.e. most accurate) Jewish sources that we have for the story of Chanukah are the books of Maccabees (I and II). The first Book of Maccabees was written within a couple of years of when the actual story took place. The second Book of Maccabees was written about 50 years later. The first mention of the "miracle of the oil" is in the Second Book of Maccabees.

Rather, the earliest mention of the miracle of the oil is in the Babylonian Talmud and was written at least 300 years after the story took place.

Now, logically wouldn't it make sense that those who were closest to the event – saw it, heard about it from first-hand witnesses, would have mentioned something about it in their account of Chanukah a year later?

Personally, I see the real miracle of Chanukah was the victory itself. Read the paragraph that we add to the prayers during Chanukah Al HaNissim - ("For the Miracles") – it never mentions anything about the oil.

And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time—
In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and affected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

There is nothing in there about the oil miracle, but there is plenty about the miracle of victory against all odds of the Jews over the Greeks.

So, if (emphasis on the word if), the miracle of the oil was a much later addition that didn't actually happen during the Maccabee's revolt, the question that interests me is why did this miracle "all of the sudden" appear in the later rendition of the story, written by people who were not actually there during the rebellion?

I believe that the Sages of the Talmud – with all of their brilliance, their knowledge, their understandings of the Word of God unparalleled in any other time, also had an agenda.

I don't say that in a negative way – their agenda was to keep Jews Jewish, to keep us connected to the Jewish people, to the Torah and to God. The Talmud is filled with parables, legends and other stories which are not intended to teach us "what really happened" but rather they teach us theological lessons and about our place in the world. And these lessons are every bit as holy and relevant and crucial to who we are as a people as are the other stories of what we believe really did happen.

It is very possible that the leaders of the Jewish community at the time saw how quickly the Jews were assimilating away from Jewish culture. The heroes of the Chanukah story fought against the Hellenization of the Jews, and they went to war to keep the Greeks from imposing their ways and their culture onto the Jewish people.

Yet their own grandsons had Greek names.

The assimilation that the brave warriors fought against so valiantly happened anyway, and very quickly. So the rabbis needed to do something drastic. They needed to use the story of Chanukah, which several centuries before their time to remind the Jews who and what they were in order to fight the growing disillusionment from Torah and from God.

In order to do that, the rabbis needed to excite the minds of the Jews with something that would "sell" the story of Chanukah much better than a miracle of a smaller army beating a bigger army. That wouldn't grab the imaginations and hearts of Jews to keep them within the fold.

Even today – there are many people (myself included) who see the hand of God in Israel's War of Independence. The odds that they fledgling Jewish army faced against the surrounding neighbors bent on our destruction were about the same as the odds that the Maccabees faced against the Greeks. And the victory was no less convincing, and no less miraculous than that of the Maccabees.

Yet today, only 62 years later, many people cannot or will not see God's involvement in that victory. It is very easy to attribute a military victory, no matter how unlikely to any of several explanations. So there are many Jews – some of whom are secular and do not believe in God or Divine involvement in worldly matters, and many of whom are religious non- and anti-Zionists who refuse to accept the existence of the State of Israel – who have taken God out of the story of Israel's independence.

I have no trouble believing that this happened with the story of Chanukah as well. Many Jews attributed the victory over the Greeks to something other than Divine Intervention, and without an aspect of holiness being there, the holiday may have become less relevant to much of the Jewish community.

But a miracle like the small vial of oil that burned for eight days instead of only one…that could grab people. That would excite Jews, and keep them excited about being Jewish and keep them interested in God and His role in our lives.

And the past 2,100 years have validated this. We still hold onto the miracle of the oil and we talk about that a lot more than we do about the victory in the war and the expulsion of the Greek army from Jerusalem and from our Holy Temple.

As the holiday is upon us, I wish all of you a very happy and joyous Chanukah, and may we all be able to see the "smaller" yet still significant miracles in this world and in our daily lives without needing the "Big" ones to keep the fires of hearts burning bright.

Happy Chanukah everyone.

1 comment:

  1. No argument from me. There are many examples of "literary licence" taken in many religious texts - both Jewish and otherwise. Most were not written at the time of the happenings and all have an agenda (which has a bad connotation, but in itself is a neutral word). Merely the act of deciding what to include and not to include is an act of deliberation. And you are not the not the first to notice that this was a later inclusion into the story of Chanukah. (Sorry!) I remember talking about this addition in one of my grad school seminars. (I studied History of Religion and History of Science.) While the reasoning of the authors can only be speculated on, yours seems a reasonable explanation and a perfectly adequate one. And you are certainly correct - it has grabbed the hearts and minds of generations of Jews. And most importantly, it has inspired eight wonderful days of greasy, oily, wonderful latkes and sufganiyot at least once a year!