“Embarrassed” by Chanuka

    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.

9 responses to ““Embarrassed” by Chanuka

  1. Of course a leftist rabbi would be uncomfortable with Channukah. After all, had he lived back then he’d have been on the losing side.

    • I don’t see that at all in the original d’rasha. I’m not saying that it’s the most brilliant homiletical interpretation of Chanukah, but I think that both your and R’ Pruzansky’s responses are significantly overblown.

  2. You say that hardly any rabbis support the rabble there in RBS. But why should any?

  3. Indeed, I don’t know of any.

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 28, 2011

    Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement today:

    Reports of recent events in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh are deeply disturbing.

    Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.

    Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended. It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.

    Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty.

    Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.

    In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

    It would be tragic were the acts of violence to lead Jews to, G-d forbid, reject the culture of tzenius that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish nation, to regard Jewish modesty as something connected to violence and anger, rather than to refinement and holiness.

  4. Yes, it’s a great response. To summarize:
    We agree with the zealots’ goals but are worried that their actions will cause those goals not to be achieved and we think that would be bad.

  5. Rabbi,
    I take two issues with this post:

    1. As much as you claim to be on the side of moral certitude and Torah-mandated truth, your column so obviously exposes the difficulties with that position. You say, on the one hand, that leftist Jews’ view of the Torah does not reflect its essential truth and moral positions, because they try to whitewash our Torah and rabbinic texts. Because you’re intelligent, you sense the impending attack against this position — many Jews to the “right” of your own hashkafah would say that YOU are whitewashing our tradition. For example (among many), you use the internet (frowned upon in some haredi circles) and support the modern State of Israel (frowned upon in more right-leaning Orthodox and haredi circles), the mechitza in your shul is not up to the standards of more right-leaning communities, and your position on the level of “modesty” expected from women in our community is worlds apart from the norms in haredi (and even more right-leaning Orthodox) communities (and I don’t count spitting in little girls’ faces — I mean commonly-endorsed policies like bus segregation, etc.). Because you know that this attack on your position is coming, you try to deflect it by branding those who are on your “right” are “extremists,” but that’s simply not the case. In fact, many Haredi rabbis would frown upon many of the policies or positions you take on halakhic issues. I don’t see how you can argue with that fact. This being the case, I don’t see how you are qualified to be the arbiter of Torah truth and moral certitude. Something about those who live in glass houses…

    2. Even if your position on the Torah’s moral truth is correct, your conclusion with regard to the virtues of zealotry betray an alarming lack of self-awareness. You glorify the Maccabees’ non-adherence to notions of “religious freedom, or in pluralism, or in peace with the invader, or in sharing the land of Israel with foreigners,” and associate these positions with “the absolute truth of Torah” and credit their willingness die for their beliefs. You, on the other hand, live in a posh house in Teaneck, NJ and, to my knowledge, have never attempted to join the Israeli army or (perhaps more appropriate) found a vigilante Israeli militia aimed at expelling the land’s “foreigners.” In contrast with the Maccabees, you show a distinct UNwillingness to die for these purported beliefs. One can make all kinds of excuses, but the Maccabees certainly didn’t, and I suppose that if you truly believe in the objective Torah truths you’ve revealed to us, you would hop on the next plane to Israel, try to expel some Palestinians, and start a Hashmonean-style rebellion. Again, something about people who live in glass houses…

  6. Two points to Yaakov:
    1) None of the issues you mention are “Shulchan Aruch” issues, and thereby reflect an entirely different area of Torah life – some reflecting individual community standards and not binding on a larger groups, some representing historical errors, and some completely fabricated. It is always best to root our lives in the Mesorah, and not in what people – even bearded people – do or say, that come in and out of vogue. That comes from actually learning Torah.
    2) I served in my time. But even if I hadn’t, that does not change the veracity of what I write. Truth is determined on its own and not by the virtues or lack of same of the speaker of the truth. So your approach is illogical and inherently flawed.
    You also miss one interesting aspect of Israeli history – that the early Zionists wrapped themselves in the mantle of the Chashmonaim and embraced the Chanuka story. It has resonated throughout the history of the State of Israel. One Israeli Rabbi even pointed out recently that in Israel, there has been an over-emphasis on the military victory at the expense of the miracle in the Mikdash – exactly the opposite of the traditional celebrations in the exile that over-emphasized the miracle of the oil at the expense of the military triumph. Of course, we need both, because both worked together.
    My home is pleasant and not posh, your comments about fomenting a rebellion and expelling Palestinians are (I’ll try to say this kindly) demented and the tiresome “hop on a plane” tripe is ridiculous and not relevant to anything you wrote, so far as I can see.

  7. Avraham Avinu spent decades battling against idol worship.
    As his heirs, we should also battle against idol worship, but we have forgotten that battle because of our insanely long and difficult Diaspora among the Gentile nations.

    So when we hear about a Jew who did fight that battle, it seems strange to us.

  8. “the Maccabim’s rejection of democracy (they were the “few against the many”)”

    I would have thought that the phrase referred to the military balance – a few Hasmoneans against a large Syrian army. Is it not likely that those who sympathized with the Maccabees were a majority of the Jewish population?

    And surely, freedom from the Greek-Syrian attempts to suppress Torah observance is a goal quite compatible with democracy…