As Hanukkah and its celebrations come to a close, we have a chance to ponder the implications of this holiday on our lives as Jews, in particular here in Israel. Hanukkah is the Zionist holiday, par excellence. It is here more than anywhere else that the “new Jew” being created in the Land of Israel found its heroes and the heroism it was searching for as a model for the values on which the State of Israel must be founded. As distinct from Pesach, where God fought our battles, and Purim, where the heroism expressed itself in pleading before the king despite personal danger, in Hanukkah, with Judah the Maccabee, Israel found the warrior for which it was searching.
The Maccabees, however, were heroes when it came to fighting the Assyrians, but fanatics when it came to fighting the Hellenizing Jews of their day. What is the difference between a hero and a fanatic? Is it merely a question of perspective, with one person’s hero being another’s fanatic? Both heroism and fanaticism share at their core a willingness to fight and sacrifice for one’s values and principles. At times tragic and at times victorious, there is a purity to the persona of the hero which cuts through ideological ambivalence and personal fear and takes a stand, and in so doing reminds us both of the values to which we ought to be committed, and that values are worthy of their name only to the extent that we are willing to pay a price for them.
What distinguishes the fanatic from the hero is not the nature of the values for which they are willing to fight but the uncompromising nature of that fight. While a hero is willing to sacrifice, in particular himself, heroism requires a measure of proportionality between the value and its cost. It is when cost is transformed into, “at any cost,” in particular to others, that the qualities of the fanatic emerge.
One of the great challenges facing modern Israel is that we have internalized all too well the complexity of the Maccabees. We have, indeed, developed and cultivated the value of heroism. In the face of the constant external threats to our survival, modern Israel has produced generation after generation of young citizens who have been willing to pay the ultimate individual price, so that Israel could be established, sustained, and protected.
Our problem is that for the majority of Israelis the expression of the values of heroism is all too often confined to confronting our external enemies, while when it comes to the values and ideals of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, all signs of heroism dissipate and in its place there is timidity and passivity. At the same time, among certain segments within our society, there has developed an ethos of heroism vis a vis the nature and quality of our lives within our borders, a vision of the future of Israel which is alien and alienating to the majority of Israelis.
The vast majority of settlers and ultra-Orthodox have a clear vision of the Israel they seek and are willing to sacrifice, first and foremost personally, for the values that they hold dear. While one may disagree with these values, the heroism they show in pursuing them generates much respect and is one of the foundations for their success and also the inferiority complex which many have toward them.
The failure of the remaining 80 percent of Israeli society lies in the fact that it has not of late produced sufficient heroes of its own with a vision of the values necessary to create a liberal Jewish democracy, as well as the values which give primacy to the people over land, and to the State over tribal ideologies and loyalties. When encountering the ideological heroism and agenda of the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, most of Israel capitulates.
The fault is not in the political system but in a combination of ideological weakness, a lack of comprehensive values agenda, and a deficiency in heroism when it comes to internal Israeli policy. This has created a lethal cocktail for the future of Israeli society, a cocktail which seems to have anesthetized much of Israel into acquiescing to demands made by those who seem to care more about the issues than they do.
But the problem is even more severe. The timidity of the majority of Israel is enabling the heroism of the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox to morph into fanaticism. When one is not challenged nor forced to confront the limits of one’s own arguments, there will always be some who interpret this as license to cross the line.
Both the settler movement and the ultra-Orthodox need to think deep and hard about the place and value which Israel as a State play within their Torah and what this value requires of them, both as citizens of Israel and as Jews. Until they do so they cannot relinquish responsibility for the fanatics which are sprouting within their midst.
We, however, cannot wait for such a Torah to be developed. If we want liberal Jewish heroes it must first start with the cultivation of a new Torah and value agenda for Israel. Without such a Torah and agenda there is nothing to fight for, and heroism has no foundation on which to stand. Without such heroism we will find ourselves falling prey to the ideologies of the minority and the fanatics who are threatening the future of our country.
Our rabbis taught that when two people are holding on to a garment, one saying, I found it, and the other also saying, I found it, one saying, It is all mine, and the other also saying, It is all mine, the required outcome is that the garment should be divided equally. The key to the ruling that the garment must be divided lies in the fact that each side is claiming that it is all theirs.
Only when Israeli society has competing visions for its future – each one with its heroes, each one wanting to define the future of the whole State – will we learn to divide and make space for each other. Short of that, the liberal Jewish democratic vision will be constantly swept aside by the commitments and passions of those who believe more than they do.
Unfortunately, we still need the heroism of the Maccabees in our ongoing war for survival. We need, however, to expand the expression of this heroism, not in the rabbinic sense of, “Who is a hero, he or she who controls their passion,” but in a heroism which is willing to fight for the values of Israel as a modern, liberal, and democratic Jewish state.