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How Diverse Jews Find Their Identity in the Light of the Menorah

Introductory essay to excerpted and adapted from A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In his career as an educator at SHI, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he taught in Hartman Institute

As Rabbi David Hartman has argued, Judaism is a “community of interpretation” rather than a community of common dogmas. In celebrating foundational events of their communal history, Jews redescribe the past in light of their analysis of the present and their blueprint for the future. The Jews share the events, texts, and rituals of their collective past, but each sub-community of Jews carves out its own particular interpretation of that past. As in families, each member experiences and remembers common events from his or her own unique perspective. In retelling the family autobiography s/he may argue and persuade the others to accept his/her version as the authentic, official account of what happened and therefore of what lessons must be learned. Often even the family therapist cannot get everyone to agree on what happened, who was the victim and who the perpetrator, and how the ongoing sense of injury and social competition is to be resolved.

As all Jews worldwide light the same Hanukkah candles, a ritual shared by all denominations whether religious or secular, whether North American, Israeli or Russian, we may be misled into a false sense of unanimity about what happened and to what values we are rededicating ourselves by lighting these candles. These candles are symbolic – they are meant to “proclaim the miracle” (pirsum hanes) to all those who pass by our Jewish windowsills. That is why the halakha recommends that optimally candles should be lit half an hour before dusk or before stars come out, when the most people are on their way home through the streets. They ought to be at door step or windowsill, facing out to the public space and placed at a height of no more than 20 cubits, so passersby see them without bending their necks.

The rules for proclaiming the miracle are actually guidelines for advertising a message. Nes can mean miracle but also banner. What values would you put on your front yard or on a button on your chest? Vote Obama or Romney? Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? To light the candles aimed outward is to testify to the values you wish to live by and which you wish to propagate. The Greek word for Jews who testify to their values even when persecuted is martyr = witness. The religious martyrs in history who chose to die defiantly rather than worship a pagan god and its earthly ruler were Jews during the rule of Antiochus the Greek Syrian who thought of himself as an embodiment to the sun god identified with the god of heavens, Zeus. He also demanded that Jews celebrate his birthday by marching through Jerusalem with ivy wreathes, burn incense to the gods on their doorsteps where the menorah would later be placed, and refrain from circumcision on penalty of death. To defy Antiochus and his Hellenized Jewish high priests in 167 BCE was to bear witness to Jewish values and to invite martyrdom. The conflict was civil war within the Jewish community, as well as an act of national resistance.

Look at this amazing photograph from Nazi Germany, which my sister who worked at the US Holocaust Museum found for me. It said in the archives that the provenance was 1933-1939. Some Jew in Kiel, Germany, had the guts to advertise his Jewish identity and his right to be different, while the Nazi banner hung at the city hall outside his window.

After I reprinted the photograph in my Hanukkah book, A Different Light, someone took the book for a weekend to Beit Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem. Her hosts recognized the menorah and exclaimed: “Oh, that menorah lives on our street down three houses.” Sure enough, the neighbors reported that this was their grandfather’s menorah. He had been a rabbi publicly vilifying the Nazis in sermons in 1930-1935, when he was thrown out of Germany. So the photo can now be dated to Hanukkah, 1933 or 1934, after the Nazis came to power.

To agree that the menorah stands for Jewish pride and religious freedom from oppressive non-Jewish regimes is easy. Hanukkah is also about a civil war among Jews, but the identification of Jews of light and of darkness is unresolved. Hanukkah lacks an agreed common text as to what the candles symbolize. There is no megillah and no book of the canonized Jewish Bible devoted to its story; there is no agreed interpretation of the symbols.

The history of the Maccabean period reveals a terrible cultural, class, and religious civil war among Hellenist, Hassidic, and moderate nationalist Jews. Each sub-community of the Jewish community identifies itself with Mattathias and Judah the Maccabee and condemns its contemporary Jewish rivals as self-hating Hellenists or as passive self-ghettoized martyrs. Each group claims the symbols and the heroes of Hanukkah as their own and villifies the darkness of war, of obscurantism, of false enlightenment and of assimilation represented by competing Jewish ways of life.

In our era of polemical polarization, as well as pluralism within the Jewish communities, Hanukkah becomes a crucial test for the self-understanding of each group of Jews. Precisely because Hanukkah lacks an agreed-upon narrative, it becomes a kind of Rorschach test for the self-projection and self-creation of Jewish communities. Interestingly enough, Israeli Zionism, Lubavitch Hassidism and even North American Liberal Judaism have invested a great deal of creative energy to revive and reshape Hanukkah to carry their banners for Jewish renaissance. For each Hanukkah is no minor holiday about ancient history.

In these essays I will try to epitomize radically different interpretations of Hanukkah, each reflecting a key to the self-interpretation of an entire community. You may disagree with some of these seemingly forced readings of the Festival of Lights presented by competing camps in the Jewish world. Yet you may also discover surprising and enlightening perspectives and implications on a holiday too often regarded as a simplistic children’s festival promoting obvious and banal values.

Our collection of interpretations begins with:

The Zionist debates about the significance of the Maccabees for the building of a Jewish state, which struggled against both the classical Reform, ultra-Orthodox and assimilationist Jews.

The Reform Movement, while initially opposed to celebrating Hanukkah at all, came around to turn it into a holiday of religious freedom for all. In the 1970s some Reform curriculum writers had compunctions about celebrating Hanukkah as a military victory of a nation over its oppressors, so they had to reinterpret it again.

The Hassidic world view of Habad (Lubavitch) and Gur portrays the battle between Greek and Jew, between darkness and light, as an ongoing struggle fought both within the inner Temple of our souls and without in the public squares of Moscow, Washington and Jerusalem.

In conclusion, the multiple interpretations presented here are meant to challenge us to choose our own perspective. It is not enough to light the candle and say we recall the past. Each recollection is an interpretation, and we must reflect on the implications of these interpretations for the Jewish tasks that lie before us “in our days. and at this time”

Excerpted and adapted from A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah

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