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Reinventing Hanukkah: The Israeli Politics of the Maccabean Holiday

Secular and Religious Zionists versus Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist on Israel and the Maccabeas
December 1948, Central Zionist Archives
December 1948, Central Zionist Archives
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 the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel have given rise not only to a new interpretation of the Maccabees but also to new forms of celebration of the revolt. While Hanukkah was celebrated in Rabbinic tradition as a minor home holiday focused on the miracle of the cruse of oil, the Secular Zionist movement with Theodore Herzl in the lead transformed this undramatic observance into an extensive public celebration of political liberation. The Religious Zionists followed suit, while the small Jewish Communist party in Palestine and the large community of ultra-Orthodox Jews offered an anti-Zionist interpretation of Hanukkah. Even the name of the holiday was disputed.

The Secular Zionists rejected the name “Hanukkah” (Dedication), which focuses on the renewal of worship in the Temple and the supernatural miracle of the pure oil that burned for eight days. They wrote a song still sung in every Israeli secular nursery school and in the official torch lighting ceremony on Israeli Independence Day: “No miracle happened here. No cruse of oil was found.” In Israeli nursery schools they retooled a religious Psalm in praise of God’s mighty acts into a secular nationalist children’s song that praises Judah the Maccabee:

Mi Y’Malel – An Early Zionist Folksong
Who can tell the mighty acts of Israel,
Who can count them?
In every age a hero rises to save the nation.
Hark! In those days at this time, a Maccabee overcame and redeemed.
And in our day the whole nation of Israel will be united and rise to be redeemed.
Psalms 106
Praise the Lord for God is good;
God’s steadfast love is eternal.
Who can tell the mighty acts of the Eternal, proclaim all God’s praises?
God saved [our ancestors], as befits God’s name…
God delivered them from the foe,
Redeemed them for the enemy.

They called Hanukkah – “Hag HaMaccabim” (The Holiday of the Maccabees or the Hasmoneans), whose battle for political independence relied on human energies. Even the word “Maccabee” was spelled uniquely with the letter a kuf – not caf – and explained to mean “hammer.” It referred to Judah’s hammerlike military strength. The Rabbis for their part interpreted “MaCCaBeE as an acronym for “Mi Chamocha Ba-elim E (Adonai)” = “Who is like God among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11). God is the supernatural warrior, both at the Red Sea in defeating Pharaoh’s chariots and presumably in Judea in the defeat of Antiochus IV.

The Books of the Maccabees preserved and promoted the Hasmonean history. It was written probably with the support of the Hasmonean dynasty of priests after their victory brought Jewish national independence in 141 BCE for the first time since 586 BCE.

The Macabbees or Hasmoneans had an educational and political agenda. First they wished to discredit the priestly line that had brought to power the Hellenist High Priests like Jason who collaborated with the Greek Syrians and to promote Matthias, who was secondary priest, and his son, who became Jonathan, head of the new priestly dynasty. They then morphed into a royal and priestly line.

Second they established a new holiday without Biblical roots or Divine certification, and eventually the Talmudic rabbis established a blessing on Hanukkah candles. However the Books of the Maccabees were not canonized by the Rabbis of ancient Judea after the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty. But these very books were made a part of the national school curriculum by the Zionists. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the Zionists revived annual Hanukkah processions in the streets to reclaim Jewish public space, as had the Maccabees. Menorahs were placed on many public buildings year round. Olympic-style runners ran with a torch from the graves of the Maccabees near Modi’in to Jerusalem, where the President would use them to light the new state’s Hanukkah menorah.

The traditional concept of Hanukkah stressed the miraculous salvation from above, in contrast to the Zionist emphasis on the theme of the self-liberation. This clash between the two approaches to the festival was apparent from the very beginning of modern Zionism. In 1903, a rabbi deplored the actions of the Zionists who, he claimed:

Magnified the festival of the Maccabees and augmented their strength and power, and this is truly a great mistake….For under natural conditions they were incapable of winning the war, and [they were victorious] only because they were completely righteous men and sought with selfless devotion to save our sacred religion.

In the face of the success of the Israeli secular state, the ultra-Orthodox have been reinforced in their view that the Zionists are continuing the work of ancient Hellenist Jews, not that of the Maccabees. In their view, secular Israelis have desecrated the holy symbols of Judaism, just as the Hellenists desecrated the Temple. The Israeli Shabbat is celebrated by secular Zionists driving through the Holy City on the Holy Day to the soccer stadium to drink “Maccabee” beer and to watch Shabbat violators called “Maccabees” play Olympic-style sports.

Not far from the stadium are the honored Greek institutions of the “Jewish” state – the Hebrew “University,” the Israel “Museum”, the secular Supreme Court and the Knesset, home of a Greek-style “democracy.” In short, the Israeli state is a form of collective assimilation that defiles the name of “Israel” and calls forth a zealous priestly rejection by the ultra-Orthodox.

Even among the Zionists there were very different emphases in celebrating Hanukkah. Religious Zionists, left-wing Labor Zionists and right-wing Revisionists (later the Likud party) read the heroes and villains and the lessons to be learned in distinctively different ways.

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