Friday, December 23, 2005


From Darkness into Light

Once again it is Hanukkah. First, a brief peshat I heard, or read, from Phil Chernofsky of the Torah Tidbits: Hanukkah candles are lit during the darkest season of the year, in the depths of winter; beginning on the 25th of the lunar month, as the moon light is nearly completely disappearing; and, of course, at the beginning of the night. One is entering into darkness on three separate, but intertwined levels. Within this deep darkness, we light a small candle to symbolize the reversal or overcoming of this process, through the act of creating ner mitzvah vetorah or, “the illumination of the commandment and the light of the Torah.”

But viewed in a more thoughtful or critical light, there is a certain problem with the standard message of Hanukkah. Are we really prepared to accept uncritically the message, most often articulated, of a categorical rejection of Hellenism? After all, most of us are not about to jettison our Western cultural baggage. We seek “synthesis”—“Torah with….” (fill in the dotted line: derekh Eretz, avodah, mada, or whatever). Many of us may speak of a “love affair” with America or with Europe. The rhetoric of total rejection of the West, heard in Haredi circles and to a certain extent among that portion of the second generation of Religious Zionism who have turned to ultra-nationalism, is too repugnantly obscurantist for many of us. What then do we do with Hanukkah?

Let’s start with the following: the Yevanim (“Greeks”) of Hanukkah were the bearers of a bastardized, degenerate version of Greek culture. A Hellenism for the Levant. They spoke Koine Greek, which was decidedly not the language of Homer and Plato and Sophocles. More significantly, they represented a cultural imperialism, forcing their practices upon the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, imposing draconic anti-religious laws, and prohibiting the practice of some of the most basic institutions of Jewish religious life—Shabbat, Milah (circumcision), and Kiddush hahodesh (the sanctifying of the New Month by the Court).

Whatever Hellenism was, whatever we may wish to appropriate of its culture for ourselves, we must adopt for ourselves, through our own choice, based upon our own values, and integrated into our own scale of values. The slogan must be yaft elohim leYefet vayishkon be-ohalei Shem. “May God enlarge Japheth (forebearer of the Hellenic peoples; also a term alluding to beauty), and let him dwell in the tent of Shem” (Gen 9:27). (I know I’m starting to sound too much like S. R. Hirsch). Somehow, the cultural contents must be filtered through Jewish lenses and standards—and that makes all the difference. This is a point well worth remembering in the age of the Politically Correct.

Why Hanukkah?

What is the essence of Hanukkah? Why did this holiday catch on so? In modern times, Hanukkah has received renewed importance for possibly extraneous reasons: on the one hand, the Zionist national renascence saw in it a forerunner of its own Jewish struggle for independence; on the other hand, some American Jews find in this winter-time holiday of lights and family gift-giving a sort of counterpart or compensation for the lack of Christmas. But even disregarding these reinterpretations, it has always had great importance. Within the context of Megilat Ta’anit—the Second Temple scroll listing numerous semi-holidays on which it was forbidden to fast and/or mourn—Hanukkah is almost the only one that is still extant. Why?

The conventional explanations usually revolve around the ongoing debate between “religious” and “nationalistic” interpretations. Is the miracle of the cruse of oil the real crux of the holiday, or is it the entire process of the revolt against the Hellenistic overlords (as suggested by the text of the Al Hanissim prayer, for example)? My own insight, which occurred to me suddenly during this past Hanukkah, is that perhaps it is neither; perhaps it is a kind of birthday or launching point for what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism. It celebrates the emergence of the mind-set and spiritual world of what came to be known as Hazal. Hanukkah was a paradigmatic event, or process, establishing the hegemony and power of those who were the forebears of the Sages; albeit, due to the ideological need to maintain the fiction of being merely a continuation of the faith and halakhah of the Tanakh, could not openly declare itself as such.

Several facts, although admittedly not outright proofs, which lend support to this conjecture, which I offer more as an intuitive insight than as a sharply defined thesis:

1. The Hasidim, the group of pietists to which Yohanan the High Priest and his sons belonged, are seen by many as precursors of the Pharisees (thus Louis Finkelstein in his book on the Pharisees, and many others). One of the earliest “proto-Hazalic” halakhic legislations is the Gezerot Hashmonaim, the “Edicts of the Hasmoneans” (mentioned in b. Avodah Zarah 18a), which set up rules for distancing Jews from non-Jews.

2. The “Men of the Great Assembly,” cited as a sort of prototype of the Sanhedrin, is clearly a semi-legendary body. Maimonides (in his Introduction to the Mishnah, Seder Zeraim) lumps together figures from disparate periods, who could not possibly have been contemporaries in the same body. Perhaps these are a kind of mythical projection of the Hasmonean forebears of Hazal?

3. The mentality of rabbim beyad me’atim, the deliverance of “the many into the hands of the few”—the struggle for political/religious/cultural survival of the Jews as being that of a beleaguered minority. Not a tiny sectarian minority like the Qumran sect, to be sure, but no longer a simple, normal, autonomous nation living on its own land. There is here a strong sense of being a kind of saving remnant.

4. The use of Psalms. The recitation of Hallel is in some way connected specifically to Hanukkah. The Rambam makes Hanukkah paradigmatic of “days on which Hallel is recited”—more so than the major festivals. There is a certain tone to the spirit of the Book of Psalms that is uniquely appropriate to Hanukkah. Indeed, many Bible critics date much of its composition to this period, and see them being written against its background.

5. The Sefat Emet (5637, s.v. Hanukkah hu nes aharon) makes an interesting statement: that the light of Hanukkah, the miracle of Hanukkah, is strong enough to provide illumination down to our own day. Ner Hashem, Mitzvat Nishmat Adam -- symbol of mitzvot. What is this “small candle that keeps on burning, providing illumination throughout the ages,” if not a symbol for the Oral Tradition, in the broadest sense?

A Culinary Footnote About Hanukkah

An interesting paradox: Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday on which there is no formal requirement of eating—unlike Shabbat, Yomtov, or even its sister Rabbinic holiday of Purim, which is defined as mishteh ve-yom tov, a day of feasting and celebration. In principle, it is a purely spiritual occasion, commemorating spiritual and religious survival, the defeat of the first religiously-oriented persecution known by the Jewish people. Until then, Jews had known military defeat, and even the wholesale deportation of populations into exile, in 701 BCE and in 586 BCE, at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians—but this was a normal thing that happened to many defeated peoples in the ancient world.

This idea is reflected in the halakhic structure of the holiday: the central mitzvah, that of lighting candles, is a commemorative act, rich in spiritual symbolism. This is complemented by the mitzvot for the daytime of Hanukkah, hallel ve-hoda’ah, praising God and acknowledging his acts of kindness, fulfilled, respectively, by reciting the Hallel and by the insertion of Al Hanissim in the Hanukkah Amidah. The obligation to give praise to God is also expressed in the early universal custom of singing the poem Maoz Tzur upon lighting Hanukkah candles, a piyyut that portrays Gods’ involvement throughout the broad sweep of Jewish history.

But there is a paradox: Jews spend much of their time on Hanukkah sitting down at groaning boards, fressing. What contemporary Jew can imagine Hanukkah without latkes, sufganiot (hole-less jelly doughnuts), and other varieties of fried foods (all allegedly reminiscent of the cruse of oil of the Hanukkah miracle)? Or, according to other sources, one is to eat dairy products, cheese and the like, in memory of the cheese that Judith, heroine of the apocryphal book of that name, fed the enemy general Holiphernes (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 670.2, and Ram”a there). If one takes seriously the “Zemer Naeh,” the special table hymn for Shabbat Hanukkah by Abraham Ibn Ezra, which my ex-wife sang with great gusto every year, one is even obligated to “sell, lease, or rent out” ones real property so as provide the wine, fine flour, doves, ducks, fatted geese, and other delicacies required for the proper celebration of this Shabbat. Did Ibn Ezra, who was a learned man and certainly knew the halakhic requirements, seriously think that Hanukkah imposes such a strong claim to Jew’s pockets—or did he write it “stam,” as an amusing wine and banquet song, with deliberate hyperbole?

Days of Hallel and Thanksgiving

Some years ago I sent readers of Hitzei Yehonatan a Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of my father, concerning the subject of Pesukei de-Zimra. The central issue there was the theologico-halakhic dynamic surrounding the fact that, after this collection of introductory psalms is described by the Talmud as a kind of Hallel “recited everyday,” it is noted that there is an element of blasphemy or cheapening involved in reciting Hallel on an everyday basis (Shabbat 118b). We concluded that Pesukei de-Zimra might best be described as the Hallel of “the day of small things,” the celebration of God’s presence in the everyday fact of Being itself.

In any event, by process of elimination, one is confronted with the question: what is the nature of the “regular” Hallel, familiar to us from the major holidays, and what is it that makes it singularly appropriate for recitation on these special days, and then only? Since the days of Hanukkah are considered one of the times par excellence for reciting the Hallel—Rambam in fact places the laws governing the recitation of Hallel within “The Laws of Hanukkah,” devoting the bulk of one of its two chapters to this subject.

On the face of it, the “regular” Hallel—Psalms 113-118, recited in full by all on the major festivals and Hanukkah (see Arkhin 10a-b; on Rosh Hodesh and the latter days of Pesah Hallel is read with certain deletions; Yom ha-Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are the subject of intense ideological polemic)—is a celebration of God’s miraculous incursions into our world, of His performance of outstanding acts of deliverance or revelation: in brief, of those occasions when He manifests Himself within the world in supernatural ways, breaking through the veil of natural causality which ordinarily conceals His presence from the workaday experience of humankind. This seems to be the sense of the statement in Pesahim 117a, “The early prophets instituted that on every occasion and after every trouble that befalls Israel, when they are redeemed from it they recite Hallel.”

When and how is Hallel recited? Even though the obligation of reciting (“completing”) the Hallel is incumbent even on the individual praying in his home, there are many hints in the halakha that the ideal is that it be said publicly: in the synagogue, its recitation is marked by antiphonic responses and repetitions; in fact, the Talmud describes the manner of saying Hallel into a kind of object lesson of the various kinds of responsive readings possible (Sukkah 38b; see Tosafot s.v. hilkhita gevirta). The high priest Aaron at the Red Sea is even described by Rambam as a kind of symbol of a worshipper leading the Jews in response to the Hallel (see Rambam, Hanukkah 3.12). Similarly, some communities introduced the reading of the Hallel in synagogue on the first night of Passover, in addition to its recitation at home as part of the Seder, simply so that it might be read publicly on that occasion.

What is said? If the aim of Hallel is to celebrate Jewry’s delivery from trouble and to “tell the great deeds of the Lord,” why not read those psalms which do exactly that? Psalms 78, 89, 105, and 106 easily come to mind as expositions of God’s miraculous deeds in Israel’s history. Yet the Hallel as we know it contains only one psalm, 114, which describes God’s acts in history—the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea and of the River Jordan, and the mountains quaking and dancing at the time of the Revelation. The other psalms seem to cover a gamut of themes: Psalm 113 begins with a call to universal praise of God and paints a portrait of the scope of His acts, including in the lives of humble individuals; 115 is a polemic with idolatry—their gods are dumb, motionless, cannot save, while the Lord is an endless fount of blessing, and we will praise Him forevermore; Psalm 116 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving, in which the speaker describes how God heard his prayer and saved him in his time of great (but unidentified) trouble. This psalm (which is thematically reminiscent of Jonah’s prayer in the whale) culminates in the making a vow and bringing offerings of thanksgiving to the courtyards of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Psalm 117, only two lines long, the shortest chapter in the Bible, calls upon all nations to praise God. Finally, Psalm 118 begins with an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving to God—“Give thanks to God for He is good…”—and also continues as a personal hymn, in which the speaker recalls how he called out to God for help and salvation from enemies who surrounded him, and God defeated them. The concluding section is an outpouring of joy, spoken as if within the precincts of the Temple.

What is the common denominator among all these psalms? The central theme seems to be that of shirah, expression of gratitude to God through song and praise, phrased mostly in the first person. There is no need to recount all the events of God’s involvement in Israel’s history, because it is assumed that these are already well known. Some of the psalms tell a personal story; one tells of God’s great acts in the formative period of the nations, at the Sea and at Sinai, but phrased as song and praise rather than as narrative; while some, as noted, are expressions of public praise, unrelated to any specific occasion.

Hence, I would conclude that Hallel is essentially an act of avodah, of Divine worship, occasioned by a particularly intense sense of God’s presence in the world—occasioned, either by the memory of moments when God‘s hand was felt in history in a concrete, immanent way; or else, through the powerful sense of Presence felt in the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals. Thus, the same Talmudic passage on Pesahim 117a continues: “Is it conceivable that Israel slaughtered their paschal lambs [on Passover eve] or [marched around the altar] holding their lulavs [on Sukkot] and did not say Hallel?” And the passage continues, “[The word] ‘Halleluyah’ is the highest form of praise, because it combines [the verb of] praise and God’s name in one word.”

In what way does this differ from the Hallel of Pesukei de-Zimra? There too, especially in Psalms 148 and 150, we have calls to praise God; there, indeed, each of the six chapters begins and ends with the word “Halleluyah.” The difference lies in that in Pesukei de-Zimra the invocations are not direct or personal as they are in the psalms of Hallel; I do not know of any hazanim (except perhaps in Ezrat Nashim) who seriously expect the stars, the sea monsters, the trees, and the birds to literally join them in worship. Thus, Pesukei de-Zimra is a more muted, low key, non-ecstatic expression of praise: to the God who is hidden in the recesses of infinity, not to “He who stands behind our wall, looking through the lattices.”

I would like to conclude with an interesting conjecture: We know that the three daily prayers are described as having been instituted keneged temidim, as corresponding to the daily sacrificial offerings (Berakhot 26b). These were of course olot, or whole burnt-offerings. It seems to me that perhaps other verbal acts of worship may also be seen as being the counterpart of other sacrifices. Possibly, the Viduy (Confession) on Yom Kippur, which is the verbal expression of teshuvah, in some way corresponds to the sin-offerings of that day while, regarding our subject, Hallel, as a public act of joyous thanksgiving , corresponds to the shalmei simhah, the festive “peace-offerings” offered on festivals.

On Incense and Light

The Heikhal—the Inner Sanctum of the Temple—contained, in addition to the Holy of Holies were only the High Priest was allowed to enter on Yom Kippur, three ritual objects: the Table with showbread in the north; the incense altar in the center, upon which the ketoret, a mixture of fragrant spices, was offered morning and evening; and the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, in the south, whose lights were kindled every evening.

Of the latter two, which formed a part of the daily sacrificial order, the incense enjoys foremost place in our daily prayer liturgy: the Talmudic passage enumerating its components is recited every morning in the rubric of Korbanot; the same text is repeated at the end of the Morning Service (daily in Israel; on Shabbat alone elsewhere), introduced by the concluding words of Ein Keloheinu: “You are He, the God before whom our fathers offered incense”; and some see the ketoret and its texts as particularly pregnant with mystical secrets. A verse from Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee; the lifting up of my hands as an evening service,” is used by some to introduce the Afternoon Prayer.

And yet during Hanukkah the focus is upon the Menorah, the lights. Why?

There is something sensual, almost intoxicating, about spices and incense. Perfume is part of a woman’s seductive “arsenal,” as noted in Proverbs 7:17 (as if a prooftext were needed!). “Negative energy” is associated with the ketoret in the incident of Nadav and Avihu, as it is in Korah’s challenge to the leadership of Aaron. The ketoret is thus a kind of adaptation of something sensual, potentially dangerous, to the realm of the sacred, where it is uplifted. The offerings made to God are analogous to a banquet placed before a king; just as a state feast would include the finest bread, meat, wine, and fragrant incense, so too the components of the Temple ritual. Incense is also suggestive of the love described in Shir ha-Shirim, suggestive of the love between God and Israel, which pleasures alike the body, in all its senses, and the soul. Indeed, Song of Songs includes a description of the “garden of spices” where the lovers go, cataloguing its fragrant barks and branches.

Light is something pure and unsullied. Light symbolizes wisdom, the “enlightened” clarity of the mind, the cognitive, illuminative aspect which enables one to know God, not only to feel ecstasy and longing and desire for Him. Or, some say, the candle symbolizes the yearning of the soul to soar upward, the constant, steadfast, quiet passion of the one who loves God all the days of his life. “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light.”

Hanukkah expresses a new beginning: the Temple had been sullied, contaminated by pagan use, by an approach which celebrated the human body and its pleasures as the be–all and end-all of existence. (And, it should be noted, the Hellenism of the Diodachi was a bastardized version of what we think of as the classical humanism of Hellenic civilization—rather like the relationship between the American mass culture spread around the globe by TV, and the great age of European humanism.) After this, there was a need to return to something clean, neat, clear—not to vague, subjective, undefined longings, to feelings which invite being swept up and activated without asking too many questions. Fragrant scent cuts through the critical armor and tools of the mind and the intellect, to cut straight through to the emotions, and can be misleading. Only where the ground has been prepared, where there is, perhaps, a certain purity of emunah, is it, so to speak, safe to give free rein to these chaotic feelings. Similarly, in terms of the erotic, the fullest intimacy of man and woman can only follow after knowledge on other, less intimate levels, and with the purity of kiddushin.

“Mixed Blessings”

I recently read in the paper about the emergence of a new genre of greeting cards, for Christmas and Hanukkah as a single syncretistic season. Someone even invented a name, ”Chrismukkah,” to express this idea, and two companies, “Chrismukkah” and “Mixed Blessings,” specialize in marketing such items. The cards, rather wisely, avoid any theological or religious statements, and are in a rather light, humorous vein. There is a Christmas tree with dreidels and a Jewish star on top; a Santa with peyote and a yarmulke; a children’s book, “Blintzes for Blitzen,” etc.

The blurb on their website describes Chrismukkah as “a hybrid holiday, a gumbo of favorite traditions from both Hanukkah and Christmas. [It] is celebrated by intermarried couples, interfaith families… people with partial Jewish heritage... or anyone else who feels like it. Chrismukkah is a festive celebration of diversity—a fresh way to describe how millions of us already experience our Merry Mishmash of a holiday.” It goes on to cite statistics on intermarriage in America, including the fact that, of those Jews who have “tied the knot” within the past five years, nearly half married non-Jewish spouses. It concludes that “One of’s goals is to encourage awareness of Jewish identity (!) and embracing of Jewish holiday traditions within interfaith families and among half-Jews.”

This trend is a reflection, to my mind, of the shallowness and superficiality of religion in America today (at least in “blue” circles; not intended as criticism—if I lived in the US I would be “blue” myself). Religion, at least for the “Chrismukkah” celebrants, is more a matter of ethnicity and group identity than it is of serious belief or value constructs (much on the level of the “bark mitzvah” celebrations for Jewish-owned dogs). The proof of this is in the very existence of groups of people who call themselves “half-Jews.” This term may make perfect sense ethnically, but not spiritually or halakhically. A person can have a “merry mishmash” of an identity, but can hardly believe simultaneously in Torah and mitzvot, and in the Incarnation and the mysteries of Christology, not to mention live by those beliefs. Not surprisingly, the whole thing emphasizes the marginal aspects of both holidays—the tree and Santa and reindeer on the Christian side, and the latkes and dreidel (although also the candles, which are gufei Torah) on the Jewish side. As if there were something anomalous about Jews enjoying fruit-cake. Rabbis have been repeating for years the obvious fact that Hanukkah is a far less weighty presence on the Jewish calendar than such holidays as Yom Kippur, Pesah, or even the less-widely-observed Shavuot. But, as I learned recently from my work with Israel Yuval, an Israeli historian who has examined the “hidden dialogue” between Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Christmas is not the central holiday of the Christian year either. The fact of Jesus’ birth, along with the annunciation, the virgin birth, the adoration of the kings, are of course important—but they are ultimately secondary to the Passion. In the Middle Ages Easter, celebrating as it did the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, was the central Christian holiday, marked by vigils and fasting throughout the preceding week. Christmas came to the fore in 19th century England, whose merchants apparently invented the custom of gift-giving for obvious commercial reasons.

Interestingly, many young Jews in the contemporary wave of spiritual quest seem to find Buddhism and/or Sufism more compatible with their Jewishness than they do Christianity. Why? Perhaps because these religions deal with the universal God idea, or the vagaries of the human condition, whereas Christianity seems to involve acceptance of a very specific mythic structure, of Incarnation, salvation, Christology, etc. —not to mention the historical burden of Christian anti-Semitism. In addition, many points of contact have been noted between Hasidic and Buddhist thought—but that is a whole other story.

All of this is not to criticize “half-Jews” as people ("some of my best friends..."), but to bemoan the situation that has brought the Jewish people in America to this pass. (Actually, while spared the syncretistic monstrosity of “Chrismukkah,” Hanukkah has become highly commercialized in Israel as well—the lead editorial on the first day of the holiday in Ha-Aretz was sarcastically entitled “The Festival of the Malls”) And this is no doubt as good a way as any of coping with their identity dilemma.

On second thought, Chrismukkah may actually be the perfect celebration of the real religion of the US – marketing!

Postscript: What is Hanukkah? It’s a holiday when committed, pious Jews sit around griping about how terrible it is that other Jews are so assimilated and syncretistic, and sing Lutheran hymns for eight nights.


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