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Hanukkah Ritual Offers Insights into Jewish Diversity

Much as we may sympathize with this loyalty to the past, we must today also consider alternatives that accommodate the spiritual and practical reality of millions of Jews who do not live by any strict code of Jewish law
Jonathan Garb has a doctorate in Jewish Thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lectures. His publications include Manifestations of Power in Jewish Mysticism (in Hebrew) and “The Chosen will Become Herds”: Studies in Twentieth Century Kabbalah (forthcoming from Yale University Press).

Among the numerous fine points of Jewish law and ritual debated by the rabbis of antiquity was the question of public fasting. According to a text known as Megillat Ta’anit, there were 35 joyous historical occasions upon whose dates authorities could not ordain a one-time fast, in such cases as drought or other public calamity. Such festive dates ranged from the eight days of Hanukkah, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, to the 7th of that same month, which marked the death of Herod , master builder of the Second Temple but an insufferable despot nonetheless.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 18b), a tale is told of the residents of Lod who proclaimed a fast on Hanukkah, thus abrogating Megillat Ta’anit. Two prominent rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, promptly canceled the fast, and went so far as to order the fasters to fast on another day in order to atone for violating the festivity of Hanukkah! Whereupon Rabbi Kahana seeks to generalize from their intervention, and preserve the festive nature of all the designated dates commemorating events of salvation or relief, concluding that one cannot ordain a fast on any of these days. But Rabbi Yosef disagrees, arguing that "Hanukkah differs, because a commandment is involved."
Thus Hanukkah’s special status stems not from the historical event involved, but rather from the ceremony of lighting candles – the commemorative ritual itself. Even if Megillat Ta’anit were overruled in other cases, Hanukkah, in Rabbi Yosef’s view, should remain sacrosanct. At which point the Talmudic sage Abbayeh retorts: "Let Hanukkah and its mitzvah be annulled!" – a rather stunning response, even hinting at irreverence toward rabbinic law. But Rabbi Yosef has the final word: "Hanukkah differs, because its miracles were made famous."
In the event, over the centuries, many of those 35 happy days of Megillat Ta’anit were trumped by tragedy time and again, and public fasting was declared. Mere historical memory carried no legal weight, and yet Hanukkah, as Rabbi Yosef had insisted, was considered immune.
In the Middle Ages, commenting on this intricate Talmudic debate, Rashi spoke of the promulgation of the Hanukkah miracle by means of candle-lighting: "It is already known to all of Israel, by their observance of its mitzvot as their custom, and they have upheld it like the festivals of the Torah, and it would not be correct to annul it." In other words, Hanukkah’s unique and lasting status stems from the historical and sociological fact of its uniform acceptance by the ritually observant Jewish community.  
Such unity was normative in Rashi’s day – but what about our own time, when "all of Israel" is far too fragmented to concur on the observance of the laws of the Torah, let alone later ritual practices? Many Jews, of course, live according to the Shulhan Aruch,the famous code of law authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo, which achieved widespread acceptance in the Jewish world in the 16th century. Much as we may sympathize with this loyalty to the past, we must today also consider alternatives that accommodate the spiritual and practical reality of millions of Jews who do not live by any strict code of Jewish law.
Rashi’s interpretation of the Talmudic position on ritual in Tractate Rosh Hashanah showed the difficulty inherent in founding ritual on the consensus of the community in today’s fragmented world. The first step is to accept the obvious fact that there is no one "Jewish world." Yet this does not preclude the possibility of the wide revitalization of Jewish practice through a sense of fresh revelation.
Should that happen, many Jews who are either distant from any communal ritual, or participate in it in a stale, unenthusiastic manner, might find new excitement in the observance of any number of the commandments – just as many Jews, in Israel and abroad, have found a sense of commitment and connection through new forms of textual study.
Adapted from an article in Havruta , a Journal of Jewish Conversation, Vol. 1, No. 1, published by Shalom Hartman Institute. Click here to read the entire article

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