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Thursday 13 December 2007

Reform Reflections Rabbi Marmur - My Hanukka, Your Hanukka

Reform Reflections: My Hanukka, Your Hanukka

Posted by Rabbi Michael Marmur
Mai Hanukka? What is Hanukka? These words are to be found in the classic
discussion of the festival in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud.
The question is not without reason: in Talmudic times it was a
relatively new celebration, and there was no telling it was going to
catch on any more successfully than some which didn't stand the test of
time ? just think, if things had worked out differently we might have
been shopping for gifts for Nicanor Day.
What is Hanukka? How are we to understand its significance? In an
excellent article published this week in a major Israeli daily, my
colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a brilliant young Israeli Reform rabbi,
offers a compelling and relevant reading. Gilad, like others who espouse
a liberal philosophy of Judaism, is not threatened by the notion that
there is historical change within Judaism, or that our culture is
constantly soaking in influences from outside. On the contrary: far from
being threatened by this fact, he is emboldened and inspired by it.
Rabbi Kariv points out that the development of the festival of Hanukka
in December may well be connected to the existence in many cultures of a
festival of lights at the very darkest time of the year. He shows that
our ancestors may well have been engaged in a polemic with surrounding
cultures, opposing their pagan theology while adopting many of the forms
and themes of the festival.
There is an irony here. After all, this is Hanukka, when - so we were
always told in Religion School - the victory of uncompromising Jewish
Pride against the backsliding of the Hellenizers is celebrated. How is
it, then, that there are parallels to be found between our culture and
the religions around us? Indeed, the more one delves into the history
and ideology of the festival of Hanukka, the more ironies emerge. Here's
another one: the Hasmoneans, those uncompromising enemies of Hellenism,
showed signs of accommodation to Hellenistic culture, such as giving
good Greek names to their sons. And yet another: these defenders of
tradition were in a sense rebels, supplanting the earlier line of the
High Priest, and adopting a leadership role almost without precedent in
Jewish history.
The Festival of Hanukka has been re-interpreted throughout history, and
different aspects have been played up on the one hand, and suppressed on
the other. One explanation of the appearance of the miracle of the oil
in the Talmudic account is that the Pharisees and their heirs were keen
to play up the Divine miracle while playing down the human achievement:
they may not have been so keen to present the Maccabees as such great
heroes. In the years which have followed, this festival has been
re-interpreted and different aspects of the tale have been emphasized,
depending on context and preference.
One remarkable reading from Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, founder of the
Satmar Hasidic dynasty, explains that for all their many virtues, the
Hasmoneans are also to be reprimanded for taking destiny in their own
hands and fighting, rather than waiting for Divine assistance. Some
years later the Zionist movement was to praise them precisely for this
quality. This debate about models of power and powerlessness also
impacted Christianity - the tale of a mother and her martyred sons,
recounted in the second and fourth books of the Maccabees, came to
symbolize the essence of the tale in early Christianity - some have even
suggested that the term "macabre" has its roots in the bloody tales of
martyrdom. Spiritual resistance unto death was given pride of place over
physical resistance in the cause of life.
In Reform circles, the significance of Hanukka has often veered away
from the ethnic and towards the ethical - the light has been taken to
represent hope and redemption for all who are oppressed and downtrodden.
I must confess that while this universalist approach is in itself
commendable, it is also a little pale and often platitudinous. In our
day, it seems perverse to interpret the Hanukka tale in disembodied
generalities. Our people have indeed struggled and prevailed in our
times, and there seems little reason to bury the specificity in a sea of
generic Season's Greetings.
My Hanukka is about the remarkable story of our people, and to me the
story only seems more remarkable the more historical insight comes to
replace stirring but facile fairy stories.
My Hanukka sees in the lights of the festival what Josephus Flavius saw
- the light of hope in the face of adversity. (He didn't mention the
miracle of the oil, perhaps because that tradition had not yet come into
My Hanukka is a time to consider the infinitesimally thin line which
separates pride and resistance from vanity and zealotry; and for that
matter the line (equally thin) which separates openness to the outside
world from surrender to it, and loss of identity. It is, in other words,
an opportunity to consider some of our greatest challenges and dilemmas.
My Hanukka is a time to marvel at the intricate dynamics of our history,
and the suppleness of our interpretations.
My Hanukka is a time to be with family and friends, to over-eat, to
rejoice, to enjoy.
My Hanukka affirms my deepest commitments and challenges my tired clichés.
That's my response to the Talmud's question Mai Hanukka. What's your


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