A rabbi, on the leftist fringe of Orthodoxy, is embarrassed by Chanuka without actually saying so explicitly. In a denunciation of religious extremism and arrogance, he cites, of all people, Matityahu, not the newly-shorn reggae star but the patriarch of the Chashmonaim. The rebellion of Chanuka began in Modiin when Matityahu killed a Jew who was about to bring an idolatrous offering to the Greek gods, an act compounded by Matityahu’s declaration: “Whoever is for G-d, to me!” That statement was clearly meant to evoke Moshe’s identical statement when he rallied the faithful Jews after the sin of the golden calf, certainly an action supported by the Torah.
Concludes our writer: “There is only one small difference. The Levites were acting under God’s direct command, whereas Matityahu was acting on his own religious zeal and certitude. While we see God’s hand working through the Maccabees, and while were it not for Matityahu’s rebellion the miracle of Chanukah never would have happened, we do not have to endorse this initial act of killing another Jew who was violating the Law. We do not have to endorse an approach that turns a tzaddik into a kanai, a zealot.”
At least he doesn’t go so far as to turn Matityahu into a rasha, an evildoer, but merely, a zealot. But he was a zealot, as were his sons, and that is why they were successful, and why we celebrate Chanuka until today.
The linguistic acrobatics performed here are worthy of a circus act. “Were it not for Matityahu’s rebellion, the miracle of Chanuka never would have happened,” so the rebellion ostensibly was a good thing. But “we do not have to endorse this initial act of killing,” because apparently it was a bad thing. But if it was a bad thing, he shouldn’t have done it; but if he didn’t do it, there might not have been a rebellion – after all, “the initial act of killing” was the rebellion. Hmmm…quite a predicament: how can we make Chanuka palatable to the religious left, since it seems to be rooted in many doctrines that are anathema to the religious left: objective truth, moral certitude, justified violence, fierce nationalism and religious zeal. That is quite a predicament.
Perhaps the rabbi has in mind that Matityahu should have led non-violent rallies against the enemy, written some nasty letters to the editor, negotiated peace with the Syrian conquerors, or – perhaps even better – allowed himself to be killed while not-resisting, so that 2250 years later liberal Jews would not have to be embarrassed by his actions which only serve to ruin their celebrations of Chanuka. How short-sighted of Matityahu…
Matityahu and his sons did not believe in religious freedom, or in pluralism, or in peace with the invader, or in sharing the land of Israel with foreigners. They believed in the absolute truth of Torah, in the sanctity of mitzvot, and in an uncompromising loyalty to the Creator, and they were willing to die for their beliefs. And almost all of them did die for their beliefs, including the most famous son of Matityahu, Yehuda HaMaccabee, who was killed in battle not long after the Menora miracle of Chanuka took place.
It must be painful to celebrate a festival that is repeatedly mentioned in our prayers with a passage that begins “in the days of Matityahu,” and then to have to read approvingly how they “stood against the evil Greek kingdom that attempted to cause them to forget the Torah and to cause them to stray from the statutes of Your will.” It must be even more painful to be forced to recall three times a day that “You, in Your abundant compassion, stood with them in their time of travail,” and with His help they prevailed over their enemies.
How to avoid such pain, or such cognitive dissonance between the real Chanuka and the contrived Chanuka ? Our writer: “We choose what to remember, and we choose how to see God in the world.” That is to say, since we are troubled (sometimes rightfully so) by religious certitude, arrogance and zealotry, we will eliminate those postures from our celebration of Chanuka, notwithstanding that without those, there is no Chanuka. So he chooses to focus on the miracle of the oil (unmentioned in the Chanuka prayer “al hanissim”) rather than on the rebellion and the military victory that the miracle of the Menora only came to ratify – to confirm that all aspects of Chanuka were the handiwork of G-d.
The psychological disconnect of Chanuka from modern, liberal sensibilities results from the Maccabim’s rejection of democracy (they were the “few against the many”), humanism (they were the “pure against the impure”), moral relativism (they were the “righteous against the wicked”), pluralism (they were “the diligent students of Torah against the wanton violators”), and reason (they were the “weak against the strong”). All the pillars of the liberal Jew wobble each time the name Matityahu is mentioned, and each time the miracle of Chanuka is commemorated amid feasting and rejoicing, the lighting of the Menorah and the singing of Hallel.
Of course, there is always a real choice for every Jew – a choice not to try to force the round peg of Torah into the square hole of modern liberalism. There is always a choice – to conform our ideas to those of the Torah, and not try to distort the Torah so they it conforms to our predilections. There is even a choice to re-think cherished assumptions, primarily that good and evil, morality and immorality, and right and wrong, are determined not by the editorial pages of the New York Times but only by the Torah.
The subtle attempt to link Matityahu’s “extremism” with the evildoers of Bet Shemesh fails, except to the extent that any disfavored violence should be attributed to disfavored people. The Ultra-Distorters who spit on little girls are not Matityahu reincarnate because their motivations are impure and repugnant, and their sexual hang-ups both bizarre and un-Jewish. Their lifestyle and values, such as they are, reflect an obscene failure of education, upbringing and Torah knowledge. The simplest solution would be to imprison them where they can be kept apart from decent society. They are too easy a target even to criticize – but not a rightist fringe of Jewish life; there is nothing “right” about them – and they have few defenders of any standing in the Rabbinical or Jewish world.
But Chanuka celebrates certainty. It is why we have survived many cruel and harsh enemies, and even survived many pleasant-sounding notions that are really the death knell of Jewish life. Jewish nationalism is not restricted to jingoistic expressions of greatness but is designed to cultivate a nation that will better the world and be a source of blessing for the entire planet. The celebration of Chanuka internalizes that objective and advances that goal – of pride and accomplishment, of purposeful survival, of righteousness and faith, of self-sacrifice and intense dedication to Torah – and to true Jewish values.
So thank you, Matityahu and family, and happy Chanuka to all.