Why do we light lights on Hanukah? The traditional explanation is to commemorate a miracle. The oil for the menorah in the Temple was only enough to last for a day, yet it lasted for eight days. But the rabbis may have had another message -- to turn us away from military and political achievements towards a spiritual direction.
Hanukah is not only about a conflict between Jews and their persecutors, but a power struggle among Jews over assimilation and ultimately Jewish identity. Even when religious and political freedom was established, more difficult questions of how to reconcile Torah to the world remained a problem. Precisely because religious and political realms overlapped, Jews in Eretz Yisrael faced a momentous challenge: building Jewish civilization as a vassal state of a foreign power.
This internal drama pitted a more traditional and nationalist country-folk against an assimilated urban elite. It was played out against the background of a wider struggle within the Syrian Seleucid Empire between various contenders in which, at times, the Jews played a pivotal role.
Many Jews were not only willing, but eager to accept the cultural and economic rewards of the Hellenistic world, unaware of the price that they would have to pay. As long as there was no direct oppression, the Jews could live without complete independence. They thought they could have the best of both worlds.
Anti-Jewish decrees, however, instituted by the despotic ruler Antiochus fueled a revolt against foreign persecution and domestic capitulation. Judah, the Maccabee and his brothers mobilized opposition to Seleucid rule as an opening against Jewish collaborators at home. The Temple needed to be cleansed not only because of what the Greeks had done, but from a corrupt Jewish leadership. What had begun as a struggle for religious freedom was really an attempt to assert and define the integrity of Judaism itself and Jewish sovereignty.
The great result of this conflict was not only a measure of national and religious freedom, but a more clearly defined Judaism and a wider separation between those who supported the authority of the Sages, and Oral Torah, and those who did not.
What the Maccabees accomplished was not revolutionary -- although we appreciate their military victories and celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple. Skillful diplomatic negotiations, a royal court and territorial expansion, especially mass, involuntary "conversions" of non-Jews, changed the course and character of the movement. Yet the Hasmonean state -- Jewish self-rule -- in itself represented a political achievement that enhanced the image of Jews in the world of its day and helped preserve Jewish identity.
The Hasmonean state and dynasty, as Prof. Isaiah Gafni observes provided a viable political entity that offered structure and continuity, and in so doing, a sense of unity and stability. The Hasmoneans became a popular symbol for Jewish independence, authority and legitimacy -- a source of Jewish pride. It ended, however, ignominiously. It was an illusory nationalism.
As we recall the feats and myths of the Maccabees, we should note what was taking place in the world of the Sages, the zugot, predecessors of the rabbis -- Yehoshua ben Perachyah and Nittai haArbeli, Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, and Hillel and Shammai.
These religious leaders emphasized ethical and moral behavior in the prophetic tradition, beyond Temple ritual and political independence. Their contributions to Jewish civilization endured long after the destructions of 70 CE and 135 CE, when the dreams of militant nationalism lay shattered amidst burning rubble.
For the last two thousand years we have been lighting candles to recall religious freedom which was restored as a result of the Maccabean revolt, and for some, the vision of political independence. As Prof. Elias Bickerman points out, however, the Maccabees did not want to do away with Hellenism -- they couldn’t. They wanted to "incorporate Hellenic culture in the Torah," while their opponents, "the reform party wished to assimilate Torah to Hellenism" -- a sell-out !
One may explain the compromise as a result of the weak social and authority structure of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael following their return from the Babylonian destruction and captivity. There was widespread assimilation, economic dislocation, and no clear independent native leadership. Although spared a destructive invasion by the armies of Alexander the Great, the Jews were often subjected to harsh treatment under foreign rulers.
In establishing some form of political independence, the Hasmoneans assumed their place in the world -- a nation among nations. The head of state was appointed High Priest by the Seleucids, obliterating the critical distinction between political and religious leadership -- and, in the process, corrupting both. The priesthood was not only responsible for Temple rituals, but primarily for education and the preservation of tradition. More and more the Hasmonean form of government resembled that of the Greeks, a crude, despotic monarchy. That is precisely what worried the rabbis, and may explain the adoption of the ritual lighting that we observe on Hanukah.
This seems to be confirmed in the Talmud (Shabbat, 21b) which tells us the story of the miraculous oil. "The following year these days were appointed a Festival with (the recital of) Hallel and thanksgiving." But not yet a kindling of lights.
The twenty-fifth of Kislev was chosen to inaugurate the holiday -- the same day that a pagan alter was erected in the Temple three years before, and the day that Moses completed the Mishkan in the desert. What was the meaning of lighting lights?
Beit Shammai holds that the lights correspond to the "days to come," destiny and ultimate redemption. Beit Hillel directs us "to the days that are gone," history and the possibilities that exist in our world, of which Hanukah is a model. Both are important.
Beit Shammai hold that the lights "correspond to the bullocks of the (Succot) Festival," focusing specifically on the Temple. Beit Hillel says the reason is "to promote sanctity," everywhere, especially in our home. Place then merges with time.
The Jews, it seemed, had come of age. They had a modern state and army; but in the process they lost their distinctiveness and their purpose. The merging of political and religious authorities symbolized the extent to which the integrity of the entire system had become compromised. By focusing our attention on miracles, the rabbis wanted to remind us that we are not only in history, but beyond it.
Their legacy is our kindling of lights to remember the destiny of the Jewish people and our own place in the miracle. We light together, all of us, in darkness, to share a commitment to Jewish values, to renew our faith -- in each other, and in ourselves.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. firstname.lastname@example.org