Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Hanukah 5778


This essay is sponsored by Richard Hochman in loving memory of his mother, Frances Roth Hochman.


Hanukah and the Assimilated Jew


In the American Jewish community, the lighting of Hanukah candles is one of the most widely practiced religious rituals.  Even among Jews who are thoroughly acculturated and nearly completely assimilated, Hanukah represents a last tenuous connection to their ethno-religious heritage.  By lighting the number of candles corresponding to that particular night of Hanukah, the peripheral Jew observes the mitzvah in optimal fashion.  A Jew whose life is nearly devoid of Judaic content rises to the level of מהדרין מן המהדרין (Shabbat 21b).


This sociological reality did not always obtain; it is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The historical, legendary, and theological underpinnings of Hanukah all militate against the contemporary reality.  How, then, did it evolve?


Scholars debate why Antiochus IV Epiphanes persecuted the Jews.  The intellectual difficulty is that polytheistic kings were typically quite tolerant of the diverse religious sects existing within their borders.  The overwhelming percentage of Persian, Macedonian, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, and Roman overlords, even if they had political squabbles with the Jewish nation, were content to leave Judaism (the religion) untouched.


Elias Bickerman theorized that Antiochus, acting on the requests of Jewish Hellenizers, merely abrogated the Seleucid statute declaring Mosaic Law to be temporally binding in Judea.  In this view, it was the renegade Jews who took matters much further by banning positive Judaic observances, coercing violations of Torah, destroying scrolls of the Law, and defiling the Holy Temple by introducing the worship of pagan deities.  Bickerman adduced support for his view from a passage in Josephus concerning the fate of Menelaus, the Hellenistic Jew who bribed his way into the High Priesthood.  “Lysias advised the king (Antiochus V) to slay Menelaus, if he would have the Jews be quiet, and cause him no further disturbance, for this man was the origin of all the mischief the Jews had done them, by persuading his father to compel the Jews to leave the religion of their fathers (Antiquities 12, 9, 7).”  Additional support might be found in Scripture.  “Having done his pleasure, he will then attend to those who forsake thy holy covenant (Daniel 11:30).”  One can read the Al Ha-Nissim prayer, too, as depicting a clash between traditional and assimilated Jews, “You delivered the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.”  Interpreted thusly, Hanukah recalls a civil war between the orthodox and the heterodox, with the former triumphantly celebrating the demise of the latter.  Such a holiday would seem to appeal only to fundamentalists and would be anathema to assimilated Jews.


Bickerman’s theory has been largely debunked by more recent scholarship.  The Jewish Hellenists were only superficially Hellenized.  They wished to do away with the more “barbaric” elements of Judaism but not the entirety of the religion.  Even the corrupt High Priests Jason and Menelaus had no desire thoroughly to eradicate Judaism.  Quite the contrary. When the anti-Judaic decrees were rescinded, the government sent Menelaus to ease the fears of the people concerning the future practice of their faith (II Maccabees 11:32).  This would make no sense if Menelaus himself had been an instigator of religious persecution.  Even the Hellenized Jews were dealt a punishing blow by the Seleucids (II Maccabees 4:16), further indicating that the struggle was between Jews and heathens, not between pious and impious Jews.  Most importantly, the received historical tradition has always ascribed the ban on Jewish practice to gentile overlords.


Nonetheless, it may be difficult for a nonobservant Jew to identify with the legendary tales of self-sacrifice associated with Hanukah.  Can someone who pays no regard to the dietary laws appreciate the martyrdom of those who stubbornly refused to defile themselves by consuming swine flesh?  Can someone who makes no place in his life for the Sabbath truly understand the ultimate spiritual commitment made by those pietists who gave up their lives rather than engage the enemy in battle on the sacred day of rest?


In the early modern period, those Jews animated by the Reformist trend (and certainly, also, lethargic and indifferent Jews) in large part ignored Hanukah.  The Festival of Lights is either a celebration of 1) Jewish militarism and the restoration of national sovereignty in the homeland, or 2) the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple and the renewal of the sacrificial cult.  Both concepts were distasteful to Jews striving for political emancipation and desperately trying to prove their loyalty to their respective European countries of residence.  In divesting Judaism of its national and primitive features, progressive theologians rejected Jewish militarism, a restored national polity, and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple as a place of animal sacrifice.


Attacks on Judaism, especially in Protestant countries, emphasized the idea that rabbinic Judaism is a corruption of the religion described in the Hebrew Bible.  One line of defense for accultured Jews who were sensitive to these criticisms was to distance themselves from Talmudism and stress the Mosaic character of their faith.  In doing so, they left no room for post-Mosaic rituals — especially not Hanukah, which is entirely post-biblical.  The Reformed Society of Israelites in Charleston, South Carolina – famously the first Reform congregation in America – had no liturgy for Hanukah.


The West London Synagogue of British Jews, the original Reform congregation in England, founded in 1841, was led by David Woolf Marks.  His theology can be labeled neo-Karaite.  Yet, curiously, he did not object entirely to the observance of Hanukah.  He merely refused to accompany the lighting of the Hanukah candles with the recitation of “Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukah light.”  He rejected the blessing on the grounds that it states a falsehood.  Lighting Hanukah candles may be a legitimate Judaic practice, but it was not commanded by God.  Similarly, his prayer book omits the blessing over the reading of the Megillah on Purim and the blessing over the recitation of the Hallel, both post-Mosaic institutions.  [The Talmud, too, questions the wording of the blessing on Hanukah candles and, implicitly, the blessings recited over all rabbinic enactments (Shabbat 23a).  Rav Avya justified the blessing by citing the verse “You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left (Deuteronomy 17:11).”  The obligation to adhere to the words of the sages effectively turns every rabbinic commandment into one indirectly commanded by God.]


While the early Reform theologians based their decisions to maintain or jettison Jewish holiday practices on the compatibility of those rituals with modern thinking and the zeitgeist, the lay leadership was less cerebral and more practical.  At the 1871 Synod in Augsburg, a resolution was put forth encouraging the widespread observance of Hanukah as a bulwark against the then-popular syncretistic practice of Jews celebrating Christmas.  In 1920s America, the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods sponsored Hanukah observances with the effect of revitalizing, for its denomination, what had been a largely forgotten holiday.  The fact that Hanukah, in it true or original meaning, clashes with westernized, ritual-lite heterodoxy was of no concern to those who rehabilitated Hanukah.  Either the holiday could be reinterpreted in a more palatable way or, more simply, not be interpreted at all.  The ceremonials, stripped of any theological sophistication, could be retained as critically needed Jewish content to ward off the encroaching Christmas spirit.


It must be admitted that the widespread observance of lighting Hanukah candles, even if just, in effect, no more than an ethnic folkway, has value is keeping marginal Jews from straying even further.  But that value is limited.


The Talmud questions why Hanukah was not abolished together with the other post-biblical half-holidays enumerated in the Scroll of Fasts.  Rav Yosef answered: Because Hanukah features a mitzvah act.  Abaye then commented: Hanukah and its ritual act should both be abolished.  Rav Yosef responded: Because the miracle is publicized (Rosh Hashanah 18b).  In other words, religious commemorations only survive if they are embodied and given form by statutory ritual acts.  But those ritual acts themselves do not deserve to become immutable unless they teach a valuable religious lesson.  In the case of Hanukah, the candles remind us of the miraculous salvation wrought by God through the hands of pietists willing to sacrifice for faith.


As we light the candles together with our coreligionists of lesser Jewish attachment, let us do our best to elevate their experience from the level of ethnic folkway or non-Christmas to that of mitzvah.