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Hanukkah’s ‘Children of Light and Darkness’

Noam Zion discusses differing views of Hanukkah at first Hartman beit midrash for rabbis in LA

The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America recently launched its Beit Midrash for Rabbis in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, in which visiting Hartman faculty, hosted by leading local institutions, lead text study for area rabbis. Rabbi John Rosove  attended the kickoff event in Los Angeles on December 7, 2011. A longer version of this article can be read here .
Last week, I was privileged to hear a presentation on Hanukkah by Noam Zion , a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, who led 40 rabbis of the Southern California Board of Rabbis in a superb two-hour conversation entitled: “Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20 th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War Between Zionists, Liberal American Judaism andHabad – Who Are the Children of Light and Who of Darkness?”
I attended this session not only because of my long-standing respect for the scholars of the Hartman Institute but because their teachings are of the highest quality.
Noam’s presentation offered a comprehensive bird’s view of Hanukkah through history as understood today by Israelis, American liberal non-haredi Jews, and Habad. Based on Hanukkah’s tendentious history and the vast corpus of sermons written over the centuries, Noam noted that classic drashot reflect the following themes: Who are the children of light and darkness? Who are our earliest heroes and what made them heroic? And what relevance can we find in Hanukkah today?
After considering the Books of Maccabees, halakhotand customs developed over time, including consideration of the significance of home-based vs. street-based celebration, placement of the hanukkiah, pirsum ha-or, the utilitarian purpose of the shammash as opposed to the eight flames, Noam compared Hanukkah as the holiday is celebrated in Israel, among liberal non-haredi American Jews and Habad.
Relative to these three groups, the Maccabees became a symbol for political Zionism and replaced Pesach as Hag Hacheirut (Festival of Liberation). The Zionists, contrary to the traditional role of God in bringing about the miracle of Jewish victory during the time of the Hasmoneans, emphasized that they were the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty.
For liberal Jews in the United States, Hanukkah represents the primary American value of religious freedom consistent with the first Amendment of the Constitution.
For Habad, each Hassid is “a streetlamp lighter” who goes out into the secular Jewish world and public square to kindle the nearly extinguished flame of every Jewish soul and draw each back to Torah and God one soul at a time (per Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber).
Noam concluded by noting that the cultural wars being played out in contemporary Jewish life are based in these different responses to the central and historic question – "Which Jews are destroying Jewish life and threatening Judaism itself?" The Maccabean war was a violent civil war between the establishment Hellenized Jews and the remnant of non-coerced priests in small villages around Jerusalem. That struggle is mirrored today in a cultural civil war fighting over the heart and soul of the Jewish people and Judaism itself.
Noam’s presentation was enlightening and exceptionally well-received.
Rabbi John Rosove is Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, is a national Vice-President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), and is an active member of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street. He writes a blog for the LA Jewish Journal.

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