Friday, 15 December 2017

Chanukkah is All About the Story

I wrote on the eve of Chanukah about the relationship between the history behind the festival and the way the festival is celebrated. You can read that post here. I was interested in the way that the miracle of the oil - so much the centre of our contemporary celebration is not recorded in the various texts which make up the historical record of the festival; the Books of the Maccabees, Josephus and the like. I suggested that we, as a religious community, have made a decision to elevate a gentle, light-filled miracle at the expense of the miracle of military success, with its incumbent ethical challenges.

In the last couple of days I came across this fascinating engagement with a very closely related issue (thanks to Adam Eilath).

In the early 20th century, Moroccan Rabbi Yosef Messas received a letter from a Jew who had become sceptical of the Hannukah oil miracle story because he couldn’t find a written source that attested to its authenticity. In his response, Messas strongly rejected the idea that a written source was the only way to prove something as authoritative and accurate. Messas argued that the home, and specifically the teachings of the parents, were of equal importance to the written Rabbinic laws. He wrote that the “love and care that parents build with their children” creates a source of authority. Parents, he wrote, “teach stories to their offspring that pass on from generation to generation,” and these stories are on equal standing with written traditions. 

It’s a terrific insight into the nature of Judaism. There are historical truths often recorded in scientific documents which explain what happened and happens in the world. And then there are the stories. Stories are transmitted intimately; even if they are written they need to be told to come to life. In our stories we find colour, emotion, love and, perhaps most importantly, the reason for passing on narratives. If documents can explain ‘what’ questions, stories can explain ‘why’. Rabbi Messas is surely right; the stories we tell, and perhaps especially at this time of year, are the heart of our faith and our connection to our people. We should tell the story of Chanukah well.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,
(This Shabbat at Shul I will be looking at the relationship between Chanukah and ‘Chukot HaGoi’ the obligation ‘not to walk in the paths of the non-Jew’)

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