Monday, 11 December 2017

Chanukah - Between History and Religion

We have an (almost) contemporary record of the Chanukah story. While the Rabbis never considered the Books of the Maccabees part of the Bible, the early Church did preserving them as, what Christians call, ‘inter-testamental literature.’ They make for a compelling read. There’s pride, honour, gutsy under-dogs and an arrogant enemy brought to humility. There’s also a rededication project - that, of course, is the literal meaning of the word Chanukah.

My favourite passage is the heroic refusal of Mattathias to bow down to the statue of the wicked King Epiphanes. The Maccabean patriarch has been singled out to bow first;

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors,  I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.  Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances.  We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

What the First Book of Maccabees doesn’t do, however, is recount the miracle of a long-lasting flask of oil. That miracle doesn’t appear in the Second, Third or Fourth Book of Maccabees either, or the reasonably contemporary historical narrative of the great Jewish/Roman historian Josephus. The miracle of the oil only makes its first appearance in early (Tannatic) Rabbinic literature, dating from probably around 200 years after the event.

Talmud Shabbat 21a
Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. On these eight days eulogies and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest. It contained enough for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were marked as a Festival with Hallel and praise.

While the Talmud does contain the story of the oil, the Rabbis mention neither the Maccabees nor any narratives of heroism.

The Maccabees seem to have been edited out of the Rabbinic history since their dynastic rule was marked by corruption, murder and other impropriety. (Really there is a mini-series waiting here for someone). I wonder if another reason for the absence of praise of military-based heroism is the Rabbinic discomfort with military might as a way of solving challenges. The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah - chosen by the same Rabbis who are responsible for the Talmud - contains the verse, ‘Not by might and not by power, but by [God’s] spirit.’

Rabbi David Golinkin, from the Masorti Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, has a terrific post on the original Megillah for Chanukah (not a tradition still in use) - you can read his piece here or watch here. His suggests re-creating a public recitation of a story of Chanukah in our homes and synagogues. We might try it this Shabbat. But this deeper level of historical connection would come at the cost of what must be a deliberate Rabbinic decision - to downplay the military importance of the historical event in favour of more peaceful miracle.

May we all be blessed to have the opportunity to spend Chanukah in peace, celebrating miracles of light, and not placed in a position where military solutions are our only response to the challenges facing us.

A peaceful, light-filled, Chanukah to all,

Rabbi Jeremy

The first Book of Maccabees can be read on-line here.

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