Friday, December 16, 2011

What Is Chanukah?

What is Chanukah?

Interestingly enough, the Gemara in Tractate Shabbat introduces its discussion of the historical background of Chanukah by asking precisely that question. It seems odd; one could assume that the meaning of Chanukah was well known. But in fact, the Gemara's discussion of Chanukah demonstrates that what Chanukah means for one generation is not necessarily what it means for another. The Gemara's discussion almost entirely ignores the Maccabees defeat of the Seleucid Empire and focuses instead on the miracle of the oil.

Prof. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about the meaning of religious ritual in his seminal work "Rethinking Modern Judaism." Professor Eisen described certain of our religious observances as "regular performances which lend performers the conviction that they are carrying on the essence of their ancestor's faith and practice even while they alter both belief and observance to suit their new circumstances." Or in less academic prose, we convince ourselves that we are doing precisely what previous generations of Jews did, even while we modify both the practice and the significance we ascribe to it. That is why for Israeli Jews, Chanukah is about the Maccabees and their restoration of Jewish national independence, while for American Jews, Chanukah is about freedom of religion.

A classic example can be found in the Chanukah song which in Hebrew is called "Mi Yimallel". The first verse is "mi yimallel g'vurot yisrael, otan mi yimneh?" which means "who can recount the heroic acts of Israel, who can count them?" The verse is based on a Psalm verse which might be familiar to you as it is part of Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals; Ps. 106:2 -- "mi yimallel g'vurot adonai?" "who can recount the heroic acts of God?"

Do you see what has happened here? A verse from Psalms which talks about God's saving powers has been transformed into a secular Zionist paean to Jewish heroism. This is perfectly in keeping with the Zionist ethos which emphasizes, not reliance on God but rather reliance on our own actions.

So the psalm verse has been transformed once by its emended inclusion in a secular Zionist Chanukah song. But coming to America it has been transformed again because in English the song begins "Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" The emphasis is not on the heroic acts of God nor those of Israel, but rather on "the things that befell us." This is in accordance with what the great historian Salo Baron called the "lachrymose theory of Jewish history" which sees Judaism primarily as a series of tragedies and oppressions perpetrated against the Jews by others.

Every generation and every Jewish community creates its own meaning. What is the meaning of Chanukah that we will create? What legacy will we leave to future generations?

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