Monday, December 06, 2010

Chanukah 5771: Wars, Lights and the Merging of Religion and State

While emphasizing different aspects of a festival to maintain its relevance has been a mainstay of Jewish tradition for over two thousand years, Chanukah has seemingly had more facelifts than Cher.

Chanukah’s initial origins lie in the Maccabean military victory over the Seleucid Empire which returned Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel for approximately a century.

Later, when Jewish experience was primarily characterised by exile and powerlessness, this military aspect was downplayed in favour of the miracle of the oil, which inspired people to maintain hope for a brighter future even during the darkest of times.

For hundreds of years, Chanukah was primarily about this ‘spiritual’ miracle. Yet the onset of Zionism began a search for a new Jewish prototype - one closer to the fearless bronzed and broad shouldered poet-worker-revolutionary of Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness than the concealing and cowering Jew of Bialik’s City of Slaughter. Desperate to find such warrior Jews in the annals of our history, early Zionist thinkers returned the Maccabees to the role of military heroes and redefined the festival as that of celebrating the courageous battle against the odds to restore Israel’s political sovereignty.

Contemporary opinions of Chanukah continue to be mixed. Some see it as an environmental holiday which promotes conserving energy sources and reducing our burning of oil while others focus on the importance of opposing ‘Hellenist’ thought (which, based on one’s political opinions, could be anything from supporting the peace process to sending one’s children to the army). Donniel Hartman meanwhile, understands the challenge of Chanukah as sustaining different features of one's complex modern identity at a time in which we live in both the metaphorical Jerusalem and Athens.

Yet a recent work trip focusing on the question of conversion in Israel, coupled with several comments by apparently well respected Rabbis, raise another potentially relevant contemporary meaning of Chanukah.

Despite their military prowess, the Talmudic Rabbis are ambivalent towards the Maccabean dynasty, due to the fact that in addition to serving as priests, the Maccabees also took the kingship for themselves, thus unifying political and religious power in one group.

Judaism is against such a combination, believing that a separation of powers (traditionally between the king and prophet but later between the king and priests) was the best way to check absolute power and maintain authentic service of God. As Irving Greenberg writes, “Some moral and religious compromises are inescapable in the process of government. But when religion and state are totally identified, compromises turn into corruption because there is no independent channel of criticism and renewal. Religious concerns would inevitably be mixed up with pure political interests of the ruling group, to the detriment of both religion and government.”

So as people continue to discuss whether the Maccabees are closer to religious fundamentalists, French revolutionaries, modern day IDF soldiers, or proud Jews fighting a battle against an aggressive secular McWorld, and as the official Rabbinic establishment does more to spread disillusionment with religion and God than perhaps any other body, it’s worth remembering how our tradition critiques the merging of religion and state, believing that it ultimately leads to corruption of both.

Bayamim HaHem Bazman Hazeh – In those days, at this time…

Previous Chanukah Posts

2010: Chanukah: Between Athens and Jerusalem (Shiur)

2008: Chanukah and the Kassams

2008: The Strong always in the Hands of the Weak

Between Judaism, Hellenism and Peace

1 comment:

Ibrahimblogs said...

I loved this informative and educating post!!! Chanukah becomes all the more meaningful after reading this.

Keep blogging!!

This is Ibrahim from Israeli Uncensored News