Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 8, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Last week when our city celebrated the initial lighting of the South Bend Community Menorah – thank you to Jodie Freid and all the donors – the TV news stations wanted an interview about Hanukkah. I don’t like giving interviews but I flippantly said, “If I can’t talk about Hanukkah off the cuff, I am in the wrong business”. Ha, Ha, except that Hanukkah is the most difficult holiday to talk about off the cuff, and if there is one thing that I am grateful for to our Talmudic ancestors it is the story of the miracle of the oil. Because that story, which you can tell in 5 minutes in a way the littlest child can understand, which is about all the complexity that TV news can handle, is completely apocryphal and has no bearing on reality. Great story, not historically accurate.
And this is an eternal problem when tradition and faith texts confront history and science. However when the Bible is subject to social scientific scrutiny much of the evidence is speculative. It depends on comparative linguistics or archeological research for example. But we have very little if any direct historical evidence that for example the 10 plagues did not happen. No one who lived at that time wrote about it. But in the case of Hanukkah we have several books written approximately around the time of the events. These are the Books of the Maccabees. None are in our TaNaKH they are canonized as the Apocrypha in the Christian Bible, books written in between the TaNaKH and the New Testament. The versions we have were originally written in Greek, though Maccabees I is a Greek translation from a Hebrew chronicle of the Hasmonean leaders that no longer exists. In not one of the Books of the Maccabees, there are two versions in the Western Christian tradition, and 4 in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, is there any mention of the miracle story of the oil lasting for eight days. Only the rabbis of the Talmud, hundreds of years later have the tradition of the oil miracle.
So when asked what is the holiday of Hanukkah about and what does Hanukkah mean to you today the answer is not simple at all. Do you tell the simple miracle story that has no basis in history or do you try to tell the more complicated story pieced together from historical chronicles? Even here the historicity is complicated because the books of Maccabees were written from very different points of view and conflicting information. Like a Rorschach test how you answer the simple question “What is Hanukah?” tells more about who you are than what Hanukkah is really about.
So here in summary, thanks to an article by Elon Gilad in HaAretz is the history of Hanukah:
By the 4th century BCE, the Jews had returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple and lived under a semi-autonomy, sometimes dominated by Syria in the North, sometimes Egypt in the South. Both kingdoms were Hellenistic, culturally Greek. During this time, the Hellenic domination of the Near East spurred economic development; and the dominant urban class in Judea, the priests, became increasingly wealthy and Hellenized.
But the majority of Judeans were rural farmers. They were not becoming rich, nor were they adopting the ways of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Jerusalemites. This socio-economic divide would play a decisive role in the following events. In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the throne of the Northern Seleucid Empire, which at that point controlled Judea. Looking to conquer Egypt, Antiochus needed cash. The priestly leaders in Judea made it clear that they were willing to be bought and sold and so began a period where the title of High Priest was accorded to whomever paid the highest bribe to Antiochus. The wars in Judea began as a war between Hellenized priests vying for the loyalty of Antiochus. Eventually a scoundrel named Menelaus was willing to turn the Temple into a shrine for Zeus and slaughtered those opposed to his reign.
Many pious Jews resisted Menelaus' measures, some by martyrdom, others by escaping into the wilderness, and still others by active revolt. Most prominent of these rebels who came from rural precincts was the group led by Mattathias of Modiin and his five sons – of whom Judas Maccabeus proved to be the most able and drew the rest of the Jewish rebels into his camp. Judas and his band of rebels staged guerrilla warfare against Hellenized Jews and even Greek armies. With skill and luck, because Antiochus was besieged on his Eastern front by the Parthian empire and thus could not help his supporters in Judea, the Maccabees defeated the Hellenists, Jews and Greeks, and repaired and rededicated the Temple. The wars would continue for years, Antiochus would die, Judah would die on the battle field but eventually Judah’s youngest brother would be victorious and under his combined political and religious rule, Jews had autonomy again for approximately 100 years. Eventually the descendants of the Rebel leaders became as Hellenized and cruel as the leaders they originally fought against which is probably why the rabbis scrubbed their history with the more positive story about oil miracles.
But you see how complicated this all is? How am I supposed to explain that to a TV or radio interview or to a public school class of 8 year olds?
Plus, as in the song I want to be a Maccabee everyone wants to be a Maccabee. IF you are Orthodox, the Maccabees were frum Jews fighting against assimilated liberal Jews. If you are Conservative, the Maccabees were moderates, observant Jews who accepted some liberal views – they fought on the Sabbath, they all had Greek names – and fought against the extremist assimilators. If you are a Zionist, the Maccabees were fighting against the occupation of Judea to create an independent Jewish state. For American Jews, Hanukkah is all about religious freedom.
And that besides the miracle story is always what we want to emphasize to our Gentile neighbors. This is the part of the story that resonates with our pride in democratic and American values. The element of the Hanukkah story that we want to catapult to the forefront is a story about the Maccabees fighting for their right to worship freely. In January 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress and spoke of American’s shared entitlement to four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. For Jews, not only was this a confirmation that America was different from all the other nations we had lived in Exile, but we had a place at the table equal to all our other fellow citizens. We did not have to apologize or accommodate to the majoritarian Christian culture in order to achieve and make the most of our opportunities. In fact the creation of the State of Israel, rather than weakening our claims to being fully American and Jewish, as some feared, only emboldened us, especially after the 67 war, to live publicly as Jews, whatever kind of Jews we wanted to be. I think the lighting of the menorah in downtown South Bend is a clear example of that. Not only did the mayor participate in the event but hundreds came, Jew and Non Jew to celebrate the event.
With every accomplishment we American Jews make as fully and proudly Jewish and American with no conflict in those identities, comes an important responsibility. Just as we have been blessed in America to be able to live with our religious freedom, it is incumbent on us to fight for the right of others. When I became president of the URC after the events of September 11, I said that my goal was to help open up the URC to all the diverse religious communities in Michiana. Just as Jews felt more fully American because we had a place at the table – the great American religious gatherings of the 20th century were always between Protestants, Catholics and Jews – so now we had to make room for other religious communities – Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Bahai.
And our responsibility does not end there. There are religious communities around the world that suffer. It is not only Jews. In Burma today, a persecution that many on the ground today are describing as genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim community is taking place in the open.
This horrific persecution of the Rohingya people, an ethnic and religious minority has recently intensified. Since August 25, 2017, Burmese forces have burned entire Rohingya villages to the ground, soldiers have indiscriminately massacred Rohingya men, women, and children, soldiers have raped women and an estimated 687,000 people have fled on foot or by boat to refugee camps in Bangladesh, usually a trek of several weeks from their burned villages. World leaders have called these atrocities “ethnic cleansing.”
Just days ago, the Public International Law and Policy Group issued a report that identified reasonable grounds to believe the Myanmar military committed crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes against the minority group. The report was based on more than 1,000 interviews with Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh.
As Jews, we understand this tragedy all too well, and we cannot remain silent while mass murder and displacement take place. In the true spirit of the Maccabees we must act to ensure the safety and dignity of the Rohingya people.
So what can we do? First, you can visit the American Jewish World Service site and donate to their efforts. You can also call our representative Jackie Walorski and the State Dept. and support the passage of House Resolution 1091 that calls upon Congress to categorize the attacks on the Rohingya as genocide and crimes against humanity which could oblige the U.S. government to take stronger punitive measures against Myanmar.
Whatever the background of Hanukah, we all love to celebrate the holiday. This year in addition to lighting menorot, sharing presents and latkes, let’s also live up to the Maccabean spirit of fighting for religious liberty. Let’s support the right of the Rohingya to worship and live without fear of persecution.