The chanukiyah is an expression of Jews’ commitment to place the particular into the mainstream of history. (photo from pxhere.com)
Jewishness is not merely determined by a biological accident. It involves commitment and dedication to the spiritual worldview contained within the vast literature produced through Jewish history. Without Torah – however understood – Jewish identity lacks a vital and ultimate purpose. Torah saves Jewish identity from being reduced to pure secular nationalism or racist folk sentimentality.
During the Chanukah period, one is challenged to reflect on the two main motifs of this festival: the Maccabean struggle and the rekindling of the menorah. A Jew can draw inspiration from his people’s courage to revolt against religious tyranny and from his being a member of a community that nurtures its national identity on the basis of a spiritual vision of life.
The Maccabean revolt is a compelling symbol not because of chauvinist nationalist tendencies but because of the values and way of life that this revolt aimed to preserve. The Maccabean revolt expressed intense loyalty and passionate dedication to monotheism and mitzvot. The courage, commitment and heroism of the Maccabees should not, however, be divorced from that for which they fought.
One of the distortions of modern existentialism is the exaltation of the virtues of sincerity, devotion, authenticity, etc., irrespective of their specific content. The sincerity of the Nazis in no way mitigates their barbarity and depravity. Subjective attitudes are important aspects of human behaviour only if their content is worthwhile and significant.
It is ludicrous to celebrate Maccabean courage and devotion without seriously considering the underlying values that motivated them to persevere in their struggle. In order to appreciate the full importance of the Maccabean victories over the enemies of the Judaic tradition, we must understand the basic values of that tradition.
The lights of the Chanukah menorah symbolize the strength to remain different and the right to sustain particular values and loyalties in a world in which one is different and often isolated. Placing the Chanukah menorah near the window for all to see represents the great message that Jews convey to the world: we choose not to hide the flame of our spiritual tradition within the secluded confines of our people, our family, but rather we wish to have our flame radiate light in the marketplaces of history. The Chanukah menorah is a concrete expression of Jews’ commitment to place the particular into the mainstream of history, to enter the marketplace with dignity and integrity.
To love Judaism, one must Jove Jewish particularity. This love is expressed by a passionate involvement with Jewish history and with efforts to enhance the well-being of the particular people who are the living carriers of the Judaic tradition.
Chanukah focuses attention on the problematic issues involved in the survival of a community within a world whose values and cultural rhythms seem so dissimilar and foreign to its own. How can one sustain the vitality of the intimate family in an impersonal world of mass culture? How can one keep alive a vital interest in that which is unique to one’s particular culture and experience if one allows modern technology to bring a diverse array of values and cultures into one’s private home?
Some Jews believe that cultural particularity is incompatible with modern mass culture and that the bonds holding together the family of Judaism cannot bear the stress caused by exposure to the cultural rhythms of the broader culture. According to this school of thought, Chanukah celebrates the Maccabees’ courageous repudiation of the world culture of their time, Hellenism. “Hellenistic” and “Hellenization” have become derisive terms that connote the assimilating Jew, the cultural opportunist without deep roots in his community’s value system.
Those who accept this assessment of Judaism in the modern world turn to social and cultural separation in order to secure Judaism’s survival. Withdrawal into well-defined ghettos, the total rejection of secular learning even remotely related to cultural values, banning television sets in one’s home or any form of alien culture – all these build up the walls insulating this vulnerable community from the threatening world outside. Radical separation is the way these people express their will to survive.
Others are skeptical as to whether this approach can succeed. Modern communication technology makes it impossible to escape acculturation to modern Hellenism. It is, in their opinion, futile to resist. We should accept our fate and accommodate ourselves to the inevitability of our assimilation.
A third option rejects the defeatism of the latter point of view and also the separatism of the former. This approach questions the belief that Judaism has always survived because of its radical separation from the surrounding culture. Chanukah does not commemorate a total rejection of Hellenism but, as Elias Bickerman shows in From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, the revolt focused specifically on those aspects of foreign rule that expressly aimed at weakening loyalty to the God of Israel.
The Maccabees rejected the paganization of Judaism. They were selective in their attitude to Hellenism: they rejected what was considered to be inimical to the continuity of Judaism and incorporated within their way of life what was compatible with Jewish values and practices.
To determine the criteria of such a cultural selection is undoubtedly difficult. Can one ever determine the point beyond which outside cultural influences destroy an individual’s character and identity?
Maimonides’ thought was clearly enriched by his exposure to the writings of Aristotle, Ibn Vaja and Al Farabi. Soloveitchik was enriched by Kierkegaard, Kant and Hermann Cohen. These two great teachers who strengthened Jewish particularity by their halachic teachings are examples of cultural openness and of the intellectual and spiritual enrichment that results from exposure to non-Jewish intellectual and spiritual frameworks.
The major question that we must ponder on Chanukah is whether the Jewish people can develop a profound personal identity that will enable it to meet the outside world without feeling threatened or intimated. The choice need not be ghettoization or assimilation. Can we absorb from others without being smothered? Can we appreciate and assimilate that which derives from “foreign” sources, while at the same time feel firmly anchored to our particular frame of reference?
Chanukah is a time to reflect on such questions. How we answer them will influence our priorities, the types of families and institutions we build, and the character of the leaders we train.
The destinies of both Israel and the Diaspora depend on how solidly we build Judaic values into the core of our identities, so that Jews will be able to interact with the world from a position of dignity and rootedness. The modern return to Jewish nationhood is incomplete and destined to end in assimilation, if we do not witness a modern return to the values for which the Maccabees fought.
Jewish chauvinism and mistrust of the world is lessened when we experience the joy of mitzvah. Intense Judaic learning in the spirit of Maimonides and Soloveitchik is the key to integrating Jewish particularism with modernity. Israel’s great gift to the Jewish world is that it enables us to realize that ghettoization or assimilation are not the only choices possible in the modern world.
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman (1931-2013) was founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This essay on Chanukah, one of several on the holiday, dates to 1980. This and other writings have been brought to light by SHI library director Daniel Price. Articles by Hartman, z”l, and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.