FORUM ON FAITH

The News Times, December 16, 1995

Making sense of Chanukah amidst tragedy

Rabbi Jon Haddon

The rabbis of the Talmud asked, "What is Chanukah?" This year in particular we must ask how we will make sense of Chanukah. Though the victory of the Maccabees and the tragic assassination of Yitzchak Rabin are separated by more than 2,160 years of history, the religious zealotry that fueled each of these events cannot be ignored.

What will we say about Mattathias, a hero of the Chanuka story, who demonstrated his zeal for God by killing a Jew who was sacrificing to a pagan god? He acted, we are told in the Book of Maccabees, by following the model of Pinchas, the zealot of an earlier biblical story in the book of Numbers. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the high priest, killed a Jew who had sexual relations with a pagan Midianite woman. God's response was to reward Pinchas with an everlasting covenant of peace. Should we as modern Jews honor zealots the same way today?

The biblical story makes clear that God has called for the Israelite leadership to act forcefully against the sinners and it was only when no one else, including Moses, had the courage to act, that Pinchas took the initiative. If God so clearly approved of Pinchas' zealous act of murder, how can we be critical of a zealot like Yigal Amir?

The answer is that for more than 2,000 years we have understood that no Jewish action or any human action that is destructive, cruel and heartless can be justified by the claim, "God told me to do it." The rabbis of the talmudic period, whose favorite activity in the world was argument and disputation, ensured that this story of Pinchas can never again serve as our model. They never permitted themselves to decide an issue by claiming direct communication from God. For the rabbis, citing biblical verses was only the beginning, but never the end of their discussion.

Nor were the rabbis prepared to accept the Maccabees and their Hasmonean descendants with wholehearted approval. The arrogance of the Hasmoneans in claiming absolute authority... High Priestly, political and military offended the rabbis. Their unbridled nationalism to the point of annexing vast amounts of territory and forcibly converting captured nations to Judaism was unacceptable. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the First and Second Book of Macaques never even makes it to the thirty nine books of the Jewish Bible.

The rabbis then and now choose instead to retell the parts of the story that provide inspiration and strength for us as a people. They focused on the miracle of oil that burned for eight days in the reconsacrated Temple. Their recounting of the Jewish minority against a mighty and power Seleucid army attributed the triumph to God. What could be more uplifting for a powerless people no longer basking in that triumph than to recall God's favor and pray for its return.

Today, thank God, American Jews enjoy more status and power than our ancestors living under Greek and Roman rule. Chanuka is celebrated as the Jewish version of the American struggle for religious liberty and freedom. Its popularity has little to do with military victory or religious zealotry. Tomorrow we light tiny candles, and at this dark and bleak time of the year, are remained again that light does overcome darkness, that home and courage still can be gleaned from a world of hatred and war. Eating potato latkes, spinning dreydls (tops) and exchanging gifts not only take precedence over military victories and religious zealotry, but indeed is the real miracle of chanuka for that can only happen in a world of safety and security.

In Israel, however, the connection between the Maccabees military victory and the young country's military prowess is paramount; not a religious holiday for the majority of Israelis, it is rather a public declaration of Israel's power and might. The public display of menorahs on every government building proclaims triumphantly that military, political and religious power are again united. For it is only through strength that Israel can be the beacon of peace and compassion for the world. With the death of Yitzchak Rabin and continued terrorism in Israel and throughout the world, Chanuka 5756 is bound to be a sobering holiday with muted celebration. And yet we have so much for which to be grateful and hopeful. The prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, is a man of great intellect, strength and compassion. When it cones to giving the children of Israel the change to survive and flourish, there is no more committed warrior. The last time Israel signed a peace treaty with Syria was back in 165 BCE when Judah Maccabee signed a hastily prepared one with Antiochus Epiphanes. It is our hope and prayer that before next Chanuka Shimon Peres will be the Second.

Jon Haddon is rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT