THE STORY OF CHANUKKAH: THE FIRST STRUGGLE FOR NATIONAL LIBERATION
Did you listen to Radio 4’s, In Our Time, when the panel of experts assembled by Melvyn Bragg, focused on Judas Maccabeus (24.11.11) Whether or not the listener was familiar with the history behind the story of Chanukkah, the programme was absolutely fascinating. Having celebrated the festival of lights since I was a small child, and then learnt about the historical and political significance of Chanukkah much later when I was a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the ins and outs of the story. But the programme made a point that I hadn’t fully appreciated before: The revolt of the Hasmoneans – of Mattathias, the priest of Mod’in, and his sons – against the tyrannical regime of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV was the first national liberation struggle in the history of the world.
Brought up on the legend of the miracle of the one day’s supply of oil that lasted for eight made famous by the rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), although Jews celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the wicked Emperor, who banned the practice of Judaism, the festival is primarily about the triumph of the Jewish religion over pagan worship. We learn that three years after Antiochus IV became ruler, and Judah Maccabee and his band began their campaign of resistance, on 25th Kislev 164 BCE, they entered the Temple, which had been turned into a pagan shrine, cleansed it completely, rebuilt the altar of un-hewn stones, as prescribed in the Torah, re- kindled the m’norah, and re-dedicated the sacred site to the service of God. And then, because a miracle was wrought, and the meagre one day’s supply of untainted oil, still protected with the seal of the high priest, lasted for eight days, the victors established a new eight-day festival called Chanukkah – which means, ‘dedication’.
That is the tale of Chanukkah – the triumph of religious piety over paganism and religious intolerance, which concludes with the restoration of Jewish worship. But as it happens, that glorious moment of spiritual renewal was not the end of the story. The struggle of the Maccabees against the Seleucids went on for a further 24 years, until the empire was finally defeated in the year 140 BCE, and an independent Judean state was established. In other words, the Hasmoneans were not just motivated by religious zeal, they will also propelled by a political goal. And their political achievement was, indeed, remarkable: The first independent Jewish nation since the Babylonians destroyed the kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, 446 years earlier, Judea was the last independent Jewish nation until the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948. But more than this, the establishment of Judea represented the triumph of the first concerted campaign for National liberation in human history.
It is one of the ironies of Jewish life that forever accused by the anti-Semites of controlling the world – as money-crazed ‘Capitalists’ or power-hungry ‘Communists’ – depending on the particular political perspective of the particular anti-Semites concerned, the unique gifts that Judaism has bequeathed to the world are rarely recognised. The teachings and core narratives of the Torah, simultaneously co-opted and denied by unreconstructed Christian supremacists, the real story of Jewish life and the Jewish people has been completely marginalised.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Just the other day, the daughter of a dear friend and cousin of mine, who goes to a very good girls’ school in London, and is studying for an A-level in Theology and Philosophy, told me that her teacher had recently insisted that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ was a unique teaching of Jesus, and would not accept that Jesus was quoting from the Torah. She has since been put right by chapter and verse: Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18 to be precise.
And then there is the Christmas story: As Jess pointed out in her Chanukkah sermon two years ago, there are parallels between the Jesus and Moses narratives. And they are not accidental: As baby Moses grew up to be the Liberator of the Israelites, so baby Jesus – as his Hebrew name, Yeshu, suggests became the Saviour – the Hebrew root, Yud Shin Ayin means to ‘save’. But the way in which the Jesus narrative echoes aspects of the Moses narrative is seldom acknowledged by Christians – and more significantly, the Jewish story is trumped by the Christian story: while Moses was responsible for the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery, Jesus, according to Christian doctrine, is the Saviour of us all.
Now, it is not my intention to have a go at Christianity. And it is gratifying that in response to the Sho’ah, in recent years, a considerable amount of rethinking has been going on in Christian circles about Judaism – not least within the Catholic Church. But the fact remains that Judaism has been consigned to the side-lines – and even the introduction of the teaching of Judaism among other religions in the National Curriculum has not done much to change this. Another anecdote: I learnt recently that a Jewish child, who attends a local mainstream secondary school, not only had to sit in a class where the Religious Studies teacher told the pupils that Jews go to church, but when this Jewish child put up her hand, and pointed out that Jews, actually, go to synagogue, she was corrected and told she was wrong! Thankfully, a number of schools in Brighton and Hove and across the country, do actually make visits to synagogues, so school pupils have a chance to hear about Judaism in Jewish life directly from Jews – and we are fortunate, that for the several years, Eileen Field, took responsibility for the crucial task of hosting and leading school trips – and that, more recently, other members of the congregation have also volunteered to do this. Perhaps, it is only a matter of time before these children grow up with a better understanding of Judaism than their parents – and teachers. We can but hope…
But at this point I’m not very hopeful. Because it’s not just a matter of ignorance; it is also a matter of prejudice. Did you know that the latest issue of the Green Party’s, Green World magazine (GW 74), featuring the teachings of the different religions concerning ecology, makes a spectacular omission: Yes, three Christian perspectives, and Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Paganism all represented – but no mention of Judaism! I know about this because Jess is a member of the Green Party, and she has got back to them about it. So, how can it be that one of the great world religions, indeed, the first great monotheistic religion, that has celebrated the New Year for Trees – Tu Bishvat – for almost 2000 years (see Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1), was not included?
That question brings me back to Chanukkah – and the first struggle for national liberation in human history. The point is, most non-Jews don’t get it – indeed, many Jews don’t get it: Judaism is not, simply, a religion. It is not even, simply, a way of life. Judaism is a civilisation, encompassing religious, economic, and political dimensions, which also encompasses many cultures and ethnicities, plural ways of living, multi-various denominations, and differing and often conflicting understandings. And if Judaism is complicated, the Jewish people, completely defies definition. Are we one people, or several peoples? Or are we several peoples within one people? When the Hasmonean family established an independent state of Judea in the year 140 BCE, there were already Jewish communities living in the diaspora – in Babylon – present-day Iraq – and in Alexandria – on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Egypt. Indeed, since the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel around the year 722 BCE, and scattered ten of the twelve tribes, the Jewish people has encompassed numberless Jewish communities, living in very different geographical, political, economic and cultural settings across the globe. So, even back then, just as today, one could speak of the Jewish nation and of the Jewish people, and be talking about two very different phenomena. I would take a guess that the reason that the Green Party has omitted Judaism from its publication on ecology, is because, having identified Judaism with Israel, and having taken a principled stance against the Jewish state because of its treatment of the Palestinians, they are unable to acknowledge, either Jewish teaching or the existence of the Jewish people, as distinct from the Jewish state.
But then there is something else going on – which brings me back to another aspect of the Chanukkah story. Who would have thought a year ago that there would be an ‘Arab Spring’ – that people living in despotic regimes across the Arab world – in Tunisia, in Libya, and in Yemen and in Syria – would rise up and challenge their tyrannical rulers? On the one hand, these revolts represent a triumph of technology, of the Internet and Facebook, of ethereal phenomena conjured up in cyberspace that know no boundaries of geography, and so, like a fresh cool breeze in springtime, have blown through the cracks, even of authoritarian societies, shuttered up against the winds of change.
On the other hand, the revolts in the Arab world represent the resurgence of something equally intangible and ethereal, but much more ancient: Hope. It is possible to see the rapid spread of revolt as a consequence of the Internet, generating ever widening circles of communication. But all the Internet explains is the mechanism, it doesn’t explain the impulse. Like the Israelites Moses encountered when he returned to Egypt on his mission, ‘crushed in spirit’ (Exodus 6:9), one might imagine that after decades of repression, people across the Arab world are also crushed in spirit. But then again, like the slaves, ‘groaning’ under their burdens (Exodus 2:23), the groaning of the Tunisian and Libyan and Yemenite and Syrian peoples have become a cry of protest. Every voice raised in protest is a voice of hope – the hope that the protest will be heard, the hope that protest will lead to change.
Ultimately, that is the message of Chanukkah – that is the miracle of Chanukkah: ‘Not by might, more by power, but by my spirit says the Eternal God of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6). The passage from the book of Zechariah that the rabbis chose as the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Chanukkah, expresses the rabbis take on the Maccabean victory, and makes sense of the miracle story we read in the Talmud. Yes, the struggle continued after the Temple was retaken in 164 BCE, and eventually the rebels were victorious, and established an independent state of Judea. But their success in the political realm was just that: a political triumph – and as it happens, with state power added to priestly power, the Hasmonean family eventually became corrupt. The story of the miracle of the oil is important because it reminds us of the miracle that is the flame of hope that, inexplicably, ignites in the human heart, even in the darkest of dark times. The process of liberation begins, when people, however crushed in body and broken in spirit they may be, somehow from somewhere deep inside themselves, begin to nurture the hope to be free.
And that is the ultimate miracle proclaimed by the accumulating flames of Chanukkah – that step-by-step, moment by moment, flame by flame, individuals, connecting together, ignite the hope that they can transform their circumstances and overcome tyranny. As we kindle the flames each evening, may we also kindle sparks of hope in our own hearts. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
24th December 2011/ 28th Tevet 5772