Oh, the joy of Hanukkah. Such a popular holiday, yet with no clear message or meaning. There seem to be more interpretations to the holiday of lights and Maccabees than the calorie count of a latke. Indeed, every few years a media fistfight breaks out about the meaning of the holiday. In 2009 David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes about Hanukkah, pointing out the zealous actions of the Maccabees. Many liberal dreidel-spinners were horrified to be reminded that their beloved holiday of religious freedom was based on the acts of violent religious zealots.
I found Brooks’ piece disheartening not because of the questionable actions of the Maccabees, but rather because he ended up denying the right to creatively interpret the holiday. Brooks’ expectation that holidays must be confined by a historicist representation of their original context revealed a deep misunderstanding of how Judaism works. Judaism is a “community of interpretation,” and it is those interpretations that make Judaism an interesting, vibrant and moral tradition, that walks the line between adhering to its authentic calling and being continually relevant.
No Jewish ritual exemplifies this “community of interpretation” more than the way Hanukkah was interpreted by Jews in the modern era. Travel among Jewish homes as they light their menorahs, asking what the meaning of Hanukkah is, and you’ll discover extremely divergent stories:
In many an American home, Hanukkah is a battle of a minority against those who deny it religious freedom. In Orthodox homes Hanukkah is about a civil war against hyper-free assimilated Jews who gave in to their neighbors’ Hellenized ways.
In secular Israeli Zionist homes God and the oil lamp were summarily evicted and the battle of the Maccabees was re-christened a battle for national political freedom. In the home of a Habad family near you the Maccabees wear black hats and battle to ignite a Jewish spark within their fellow Jews. (If you’ll excuse the product placement - you can read more about these interpretations in my father, Noam Zion’s Hannukah anthology).
Each community uses the rituals and metaphors of Hanukkah in order to shape and celebrate their ideological world view – and this is exactly as it should be!
In 1907 a wild Hanukkah party rocked the world of the early Zionist settlement in Jerusalem. Betzalel, the heady Zionist art school of Jerusalem had just opened its doors, and its founder, Boris Shatz, had place his baroque-like sculpture of Matthias, the first Maccabean zealot, at the center. The polemic that followed on the OpEd pages of the Israeli Zionist newspapers of the time rivals was immortalized in Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s novel “Tmol Shilshom”:
When Professor Boris Shatz founded his Betzalel, he was struck by Hanukkah, the holy day that people started calling the Holiday of the Maccabees. They went and turned it into a lusty party.
They placed a large statue of Matityahu the High Priest, with a sword in hand ready to stab the villain who dared sacrifice a pig on the altar placed in honor of evil Antiochus. They danced the night away in revelry and excess.
The next day [Eliezer] Ben Yehuda wrote in his newspaper good words about the party, but he was disturbed on account of that statue that they had placed in the ballroom: For Matityahu was a zealous for his religion – his religion and not his country. As long as the Greeks controlled our country, and stole, robbed, murdered, killed and destroyed cities and villages, Matityahu and his sons stayed in their city Modi'in and didn't do a thing, but the second the Greeks began harming the religion… he jumped up like a lion, he and his heroic sons…
And now, says Ben Yehuda in his essay, now I have no doubt that when we gathered yesterday in his honor, if the statue would have come to life, or if Matityahu was alive today - that he would have stabbed us all in one go with the sword in his hand! Wouldn't he have sacrificed us on top of that altar?!
כשעשה הפרופסור בוריס שץ את הבצלאל שלו, פגע בו חנוכה, חג קדוש זה שהתחילו קוראים לו חג המכבים. הלכו ועשאוהו נשף חשק.
העמידו פסל של מתתיהו כהן גדול, כשהוא אוחז חרב בידו לדקור את הפריץ שהקריב חזיר על גבי המזבח שעשו לשם אנטיוכוס הרשע. עשו כל הלילה בהוללות ובזוללות.
למחר כתב בן יהודה בעיתונו דברים של חיבה על הנשף, אלא שדעתו לא היתה נוחה בשל אותו פסל שהעמידו באולם, שהרי מתתיהו זה קנאי לדתו היה, לדתו ולא לארצו, שהרי כל הזמן שפשטו היוונים על ארצנו וגזלו וחמסו ורצחו והרגו והחריבו ערים וכפרים ישבו לו מתתיהו ובניו במודיעין עירם ולא נקפו אצבע, אלא משהתחילו היוונים לפגוע בדת... קפץ כארי הוא ובניו הגיבורים... ועתה, אומר בן יהודה במאמרו, ועתה אין אני מסופק שבשעה שנתאספנו אמש לכבודו, אילו היו נופחים רוח חיים בפסל, או אילו היה הוא עצמו חי, כלום לא היה דוקר אותנו כולנו כאחד בחרב שבידו?! כלום לא היה מעלה אותנו על גבי המזבח?!
ש"י עגנון, "תמול שלשום", עמ' 386
I love how the polemics of a century ago continue to be relevant today.
The irony of inviting Matityahu to a secular artists rave, surrounded by idols and sculptures, is awesome, and it reminds us to always be a little tongue in cheek about our reinterpretations. I hear Ben Yehuda’s criticism, but I would side with Boris Shatz here. We have the right, in fact, we have the need, to be reinterpreting our holidays for ourselves and our communities in ways that are relevant, that charge our lives and our Judaism with a content that is fresh and motivating. When we weave Jewish narratives back into our lives, we galvanize our focus towards greater meaning and action. These reinterpretations need to resonate within Jewish values and narratives authentically, but they must also be renegotiated so as to be a response to the needs and vision of our communities.
What is the meaning of Hanukkah in 2011? What do the Maccabees tell us this year? Is it the continuous call to let the affluence of the American Jewish community spill into the public realm, as symbolized by Jewish lights in the window lighting the public streets, or is it about our need to light candles inwardly, reminding ourselves of the light of our heritage in a time of existential darkness? Are today’s Hellenists those who are mimicking European neo-fascist sentiments in the land of Israel, and it is time for Maccabean democracy fighters to “banish the darkness,” or are the Hellenists those who blindly accept a post-ethnic mentality and are ashamed to call the Jewish people their family? I hope you’ll see that I am not claiming that Hannukah is any one of these stories, rather that within the spectrum of stories that can be told within Jewish narratives and values, we must take ownership of this story, redeem it from its “original historical” significance (a Greek idea if ever there was one!) and reinterpret the holiday, placing a big Matityahu in the center of our Hanukkah parties and actively choosing how we are telling the story of his battle. This is what the Zionists and American Jews of previous generations did so effectively. We must not feel alienated from these rituals because of their historical underpinnings, but rather retell them creatively, turning them into tools as we encounter the greater challenges of our own existence.
Perhaps that is the ironic fate of Matityahu the Zealot: to hear widely divergent explanations of his heroism and have people wolf down fatty foods espousing narratives he would scarcely recognize. That too must be symbolized somehow through the narrative of Hanukkah.