Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    soldier lighting a menorah

    Sacred or Secular Hanukkah

    The Festival of Lights commemorates either a military victory or a religious miracle; why can’t it do both at once?

    By Atar Hadari

    December 10, 2020
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
      Submit

    My teacher Rabbi Daniel Landes tells a story about one Hanukkah night in his youth when he happened to be at a public building with then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, an Israeli political player who held that significant post for some thirty years. You might perhaps imagine the Democratic mayor of Chicago Richard Daley, for some comparison. Mayor Kollek looked around the room where people were going through the motions of a public Hanukkah lighting ceremony and suddenly snapped. “You,” he pointed at the man holding the candle to start lighting, “Why are you doing that? You’re not religious. And you, you, and you – why are you here? You’re not religious either.” Somebody must have quieted the mayor down because the candles were eventually lit (and presumably doughnuts eaten) and Rabbi Landes went over to the mayor to find out what his story was. It turned out Mayor Kollek came from a religious family, but when he was starting out in politics around the founding of the state of Israel you could not be both religious and political. It was either one or the other, the spirit or the flesh, the sacred or the secular. You might say nothing has changed in Judea for thousands of years.

    When we celebrate Hanukkah to this day and light eight candles, we are on one level commemorating a military victory in a civil war. On one side, secular Jews who were willing to go along with the rule of the Seleucid Empire and have Greek gods in the Temple in Jerusalem, even going so far as to offer a public sacrifice to one of those idols because they didn’t think it much mattered. And in the opposing camp religious fundamentalists, the sons of Mattathias, a priest from the backwater town of Modiin who not only refused to offer a sacrifice but stabbed another Jew for being willing to make that sacrifice to Zeus in public (2 Maccabees 2:24). Just like Teddy Kollek, he did not think religious ceremonies were empty of meaning just because they were indulged in the context of public politics. The ensuing rebellion drew in all Mattathias’s sons, who fought their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, scrubbed it from top to bottom, made a new altar (that had not had a pig sacrificed on it) and lit new lamps with oil.

    You could not dabble for long in both the spirit and the flesh.

    Why do we light candles for eight nights? The Babylonian Talmud tells a miraculous story of a single vessel of oil which had remained untainted with the seal of the High Priest on it, which Mattathias’s sons found hidden in the Temple and managed to light for not the one day it should have lasted but an unprecedented eight nights. The Babylonian Talmud brings this story because just like in Teddy Kollek’s youth, in Judea you could not dabble for long in both the spirit and the flesh. You could be a spiritual leader, or you could be a military leader.

    After the initial heroic generation of Mattathias’s priestly sons and one other generation that was fairly devout, there came a generation that was more inclined to the power of the office than the service of the Lord. Two of Mattathias’s great grandsons were both more interested in the post of High Priest and in being the Jewish king than in leading the service in the Temple. But unlike Kollek, they did not give up religion and stick with politics. They vied for the office of High Priest. There was another civil war which ended with Rome taking control of Judea; the rabbis weren’t so inspired by that history, so in the Babylonian Talmud they preferred to feature the miracle of that oil instead of the military victory that led to a military government. That is why we light candles and eat oily doughnuts. Kollek’s refusal to see people going through the motions and making a blessing over those candles without meaning a word of it revealed the deep spiritual schism hidden underneath the story.

    That division may also be found in the language of Psalm 30, which has a unique inscription, leading some to believe it was recited by Mattathias’s children every day of the festival they instituted, Hanukkah. The inscription reads: Composition, song for the inauguration of the Temple, by David. But the Hebrew word is bait, which could mean David’s own house, or, as some argue, the Lord’s house – the first Temple. In this reading, David himself sang this song and instructed his son Solomon that it should be recited at the inauguration of the Temple when it was built. Tractate Sofrim, a legal compilation from around 750 CE, notes that this Psalm is said on all eight days of Hanukkah; Pesikta Rabbati, a collection of rabbinic homilies on the prophetic books dating from around 845 CE, ascribes the association with Hanukkah to that inscription linking it to the inauguration of the Temple. This assumes that Mattathias’s sons said it, that the speaker in the song is not one person but an entire nation, and that the mountain fortress referred to in the text is not just the speaker’s mountain but the Temple mount.

    But it is not so straightforward, because what the speaker of the psalm notes is, as that priestly dynasty found out, the Lord is not an ally you can take for granted. If you start out worshipping him you have to keep doing so, actively and sincerely. You cannot go through motions, or light candles just for the sake of a public ceremony.

    Psalm 30

    I will extol you Lord for you have raised me up
    And not let my enemies rejoice at my expense.
    The Lord is my God – I cried to you and you made me well.
    Lord, you raised my soul from the underworld
    Let me live, from all those who go down in the pit.
    Sing to the Lord his followers, and praise his sacred name.
    For his fury lasts a moment, a lifetime is his good will
    If at night you lie down crying, just by morning you will sing.

    This opening section sits well with that military victory of the first generation, and indeed with David’s own victories. The soul of the speaker has been saved from not just spiritual death but a literal death, and he clearly addresses others to join him in embracing the gifts of a Lord who can be tricky to handle but you want to have on your side. Even if the Lord is unhappy with you, if you just keep with him, he will change his tune by morning and the good times will be here again.

    Unfortunately, if you come to rely on this state of affairs things can turn just like that.

    But I said when I was at peace – I will never fall for all time.
    Lord, when I was doing your will – you stood my mountain strong;
    When you hid your face I was terrified.
    To you Lord I call and to you Lord I’ll keen.
    What use is making my blood spill and me going down to the infernal pit?
    Will the dust thank you – will it recount your kindness?
    Hear Lord and favor me – Lord, be my relief.

    This second section clearly reflects a possible national aspiration – most of us do not possess our own mountain fortresses, and so the Temple mount in Jerusalem makes sense as an interpretation of what the psalmist refers to as his mountain. But the essence of the message is to look out for that moment when the Lord hides his face, and to be morally alert to new signals at such a time. The speaker of the psalm turns on his heel from placid optimism and trust in the Lord to desperate plea bargaining. What are you going to get out of it, Lord, if you throw me back down to where you dredged me from? Don’t think I take you for granted!

    Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, the great-great-grandsons of Mattathias, fought each other for the job of High Priest with no ear for the changing reality around them. Not only were the Jewish people almost as divided as they had been before, there were now two distinct and committed Jewish factions, the Pharisees who were interpreters of the law for the common people and the Sadducees who were more invested in the Temple and its purity laws. Where the first Jewish civil war ended in one group of spiritually committed warriors driving out the interlopers, this second one pitted two spiritual camps one against the other, each lending their support to an equally secular grandson. The division ended in the conquest of Judea by Rome.

    The Lord is not an ally you can take for granted.

    The new king was not Jewish by descent, let alone a priest – Herod was a Roman appointment, the son of an Edomite (Syrian Arab) who had converted to Judaism under the previous Hasmonean leadership. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 41a) records Herod’s grandson Agrippa having the Torah scroll handed to him by the High Priest in a public ceremony and reading aloud (as a Jewish king must) Deuteronomy 17: 15: “you may not appoint a foreigner as King over you.” As tears rolled down his cheeks, they told him, “Fear not Agrippa, you are our brother.” Whether this story is historically accurate or not, it shows the perception of the rabbis as to exactly who had displaced two militaristic grandsons of a priest, grandsons who had lost their link to spirituality.

    You’ll turn my wake into a jig, you’ve loosed my sackcloth and girded me with glad rags.
    So that glory sings your praise and never falls silent
    Lord my God forever I will give you thanks.

    That last section explains why Levites also recited this psalm in the Temple at the time of first harvest offerings: it reminded the pilgrim not to be complacent. To this day it is the last psalm recited in the opening section of Jewish morning prayers, and also recited for and by the sick. Whether we should say it at Hanukkah, though, is a question. At the end of the day, this psalm says, just because you’re lighting your candle, don’t assume the Lord will always be with you. You can light candles night after night until your menorah blazes on your window publicizing the miracle on the eighth night. But don’t rely on him to be there if you don’t pay attention to him. The candles are a starting point. You have to ask him to stick around.

    That conflict between the spiritual and the secular remains there in Israel in all walks of life and remained there for my teacher Daniel Landes, who years after that encounter with the mayor of Jerusalem sent his one son into the Israeli army. This was not a decision taken lightly. The spiritually uncompromising section of the Israeli community are the ultra-Orthodox, who for the most part do not serve in the army. That was a compromise measure between the spirit and the flesh adopted by Israel’s first prime minister, Ben Gurion, who looked at the handful of ultra-Orthodox who wanted to devote their lives to study in yeshivot (seminaries) and agreed to excuse them from military service. Teddy Kollek would have understood that. You cannot belong to two opposing camps. To this day, if you speak with political people in Israel, be they left-wing or right-wing, a family will define itself as “nationalist” or “Zionist” but not “religious,” even if they celebrate all of the Jewish holidays. The army is secular, for all its embrace of public ceremonies like lighting candles at Hanukkah. Exactly the kind of celebrations Teddy Kollek was still sincere enough in his religious feelings to detest.

    You can light the candle, but you have to believe in it.

    Rabbi Landes was fortunate – his son Isaac came out of the army as solid and moral a fellow as he had gone into it, and I was fortunate to learn alongside him for rabbinic ordination. He now teaches Bible classes to secular Israelis. You can walk the line between two camps, but it is hard work. You can light the candle, but you have to believe in it. And you have to ask the Lord to stick around, not just assume the miracle of oil will do all of the work. The work goes on after you tell the story of the oil, raising children who can believe in miracles and work to make them happen. Keeping a Temple clean and dedicated, generation after generation, is what Psalm 30 tells you may not be as simple as it looks.

    Contributed By Atar Hadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

    Learn More
    0 Comments

    Sign up for Plough's weekly newsletter