Chanukah

In Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman’s article in the Jerusalem Post (Nov 22-28, p21) titled ‘The End of Hanukka’ he poses some excellent questions about the very meaning, purpose and intention of keeping, celebrating Chanukah. As the festival begins tonight and the Jewish world once more is drawn to the flame of our national survival over the millennia in the face of many attempts to terminate the Jewish hope and dream, we may marvel at our national, communal resilience, our ability to survive and live to see another day. Rabbi Hartman rightly draws out the heart’s yearning of this historic connection ‘lighting a candle is not a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being’. Who would deny the truth of that? Yet in the same article he assesses the current Jewish situation thus: ‘Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem’. Over 2000 years have passed since the Hellenist dream to absorb and assimilate us was put into operation, yet have we learnt anything, nothing? What was the point of Chanukah, what was the real miracle? Are we really citizens of two kingdoms?

Rabbi Hartman is correct in asserting though that ‘the Maccabean victory was no (…) tipping point in history’. For a brief moment our light shone before internal power politics and international pressures began to dominate the national agenda again. Our Temple, so brilliantly restored with such bravery and zealous courage again fell into corruption and, as if we ever even needed reminding of this, failed also to be filled with the tangible presence of HaShem as in the past. A victory it was, but indeed no tipping point in history. Just over a century later our national decline was once more in full swing leading to the tragic events in 70CE as the heart was ripped from our nation and our ancient longing for a settled Homeland cruelly put on ice as Diaspora inevitably followed.

No, this was no tipping point. Nothing it seems had really changed at all and our national, personal inability to follow the commands of the Lord G-d were brought once more to the forefront of our consciousness. Patting ourselves on our backs to massage our damaged historical souls and spirits while claiming that identity is all, as if this was the driving force behind Chanukah is to miss the point. If we still haven’t realised that the same cultural assimilatory spirit behind Athens is still at work today in our post-modern society with its liberal values, then we still have lessons to learn. No, we cannot be sons and daughters of both Athens and Jerusalem.

So the point of Chanukah? Surely it is this: We must be citizens of one Kingdom alone. It was not the small army of dedicated soldiers who freed us from the might of the Greek armies and rededicated the Temple. It was the King behind the Kingdom. So as we light the candle tonight, let us remember that it is not ‘by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord’. Only because our G-d is faithful to the covenants He made will we, can we survive at all because He is merciful and will always bring our deliverance, our redemption to us in due season.

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Things change.

If you are living in the UK you will not have failed to notice the recent highly acclaimed TV series penned and presented by Prof. Simon Schama as it dominated the documentary horizon. As excellent as the series was and is, it was his personal journey of discovery that was one of the most moving aspects of it. Not simply happy to reconnect and bask in the history of his people, he asked the difficult and challenging questions of a historian for whom platitudes are no more than a sanctimonious superficiality. And it was one question in particular that brought the whole series into focus. He asked ‘How could we be Jewish in a post-Temple Judaism?’ This stunningly lucid and provocative question eats away at the very fabric of historical Judaism in the last 2000 years of Diaspora and undermines the very foundation stones of a form of Judaism designed to SURVIVE the catastrophe of exile but not necessarily reflect the essence of Judaism.

Such an iconoclastic question needs to be asked in the current desire to see Judaism renewed and revived once more. The Prophets of old were not concerned to see Judaism morph into something ‘new’ but rather see the people drawn back to what Judaism had always taught and believed. Judaism, as defined by the Torah covenant given by G-d at Sinai, seems to be but an ancient memory in contrast to what Judaism has become today. The Judaism of the Torah is G-d focussed, determinedly pursuing His presence and passionately desiring to draw close to the G-d who brought us out of the house of bondage. It is Temple-centric, or in the early days, Tabernacle orientated. Even here we see the centrality of G-d’s living presence with us His people. The commandments were daily life-giving structures and a living reality from a G-d who loved us and whose love and care we knew.

Things change. Judaism (in the generic sense of that word) today is not what it was 4000 years ago, nor even 2000 years ago as we transitioned between Jewish religious forms necessitated by external factors. But the question remains, just how could/can Judaism survive in a post-Temple world? Its central place as a sacrificial icon and resting place of the Shekinah highlighted not only its importance practically but theologically too. Yet change Judaism did. As the Sages of Yavneh refashioned Judaism into a form where text and our interaction with it became the cut and thrust of daily Jewish life, a Judaism that needed no Temple, no immediate sense of the presence of G-d or core acceptance of the requirement for sacrifices was created. This form of Judaism, Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism, was designed to exist in a post-Temple and post-Land world, a form structured to hold our identity even while the Sages bemoaned the fact that the ‘Shekinah had departed’. Text and tradition took the seat of authority and the rule of the rabbi began. In what was meant to be a religion, a faith, of immanence and the experience of the living G-d of Israel as our Fathers knew it to be, changed gradually into what we know it to be today.

Monolithic as (Rabbinic) Judaism appears today, there is no reason why history must define the future. It is time to face the reality that a Judaism created to function in exile away from the core tenets of Jewish faith and practice needs to be renewed and revived in line with our return to the Inheritance, the Land once more. And where should we look for guidance on what this renewal should look like? As surprising as it is to many, there were in fact two forms of Judaism that survived the first century. Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism everyone has heard of, but the other form has lain hidden for 2000 years and only recently has appeared again: Messianic Judaism. Like Yosef hidden from his brothers, this form was whisked away into a foreign environment only to be revealed like Yosef at the right time. Messianic Judaism is the renewing and revived form of the Judaism of the Torah and answers the burning question of how we can survive in a post-Temple world.