Hanukkah in Modern Israel

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Although Hanukkah is rated as more important to American Jews than Israeli Jews, and 60% of American Jews light candles each night compared to 73% of Israeli Jews, it is clear for both American and Israeli Jews, Hanukkah is a uniquely popular holiday. But, if you peel behind the layers, and for anyone who has spent time in Israel the month before Hanukkah and during Hanukkah, the mystique of Hanukkah pervades throughout the land. The vast majority of Israeli Jews partake in several Hanukkah activities, such as eating sufganiyot (doughnuts) and latkes (79%). Interestingly, 42% of Israeli Jews report attending one Hanukkah entertainment show (as a Jew living in LA, I can’t remember the last time I attended a Hanukkah show!). Most significantly, 99% (!) of Israeli Jews light Hanukkah candles at least some of the time, according to Shmuel Rosner’s research reported by Maariv. Wow!

Why does Hanukkah take on significant ritual attention in Israel? What can we learn about the unique relationship between Hanukkah and the modern State of Israel? What valuable lessons can we take with us to understand Hanukkah in a different way this year? Perhaps most significantly, what can Jews living outside of Israel learn from the unique focus of Hanukkah in Israel that can help us understand the rift between American and Israeli Jews we keep hearing about?

To understand the relationship between Hanukkah and Israelis, we need to go back in time. In Rabbi Benny Lau’s magnum opus, The Sages, he demonstrates how the books Maccabees I and Maccabees II illustrate the precise difference between how Hanukkah was perceived by the Jewish communities inside and outside of Israel. (The Book of Maccabees is excluded from the Biblical canon, but is part of what is known as Apocrypha, religious writings not included in the 24 books of Tanakh.) 

Maccabees I, written in Hebrew, focuses on the might of the Maccabees and their military history. Maccabees II, written in Greek by Jason of Cyrene, centers around the religious situation of the Jewish people at the time. Maccabees I, written in the land of Israel, essentially attributes all success to Judah and the Maccabees. Maccabees II, written in exile, tells the spiritual story of reinstating Sukkot and is indifferent to the bravery of Judah and his soldiers. 

Interestingly, neither Maccabees I nor Maccabees II mentions the miracle of the cruse of oil, i.e., the miracle of the lights lasting for “eight crazy nights,” to quote Adam Sandler. This miracle finally receives credit in the Babylonian Talmud, where we learn of “a small jug, for eight days it gave its oil.” The Babylonian Talmud, written in exile, does not devote attention to the military might of the Maccabees. To quote Rabbi Lau, “It became a festival bearing the deep imprint of exile, lacking any suggestion of political independence.” For the Jews living in Judea at the time, the holiday of Hanukkah was experienced as a holiday of national liberation. Yet for the Jews living outside of the land, it was experienced spiritually and religiously. 

Two thousand years later, the early Zionists – set on creating a “new Jew,” one that would find “lost Jewish masculinity” – followed in the tradition of Maccabees I and radically reinterpreted Hanukkah as a holiday of human might and achievement. Early Zionist poet Aharon Ze’ev praised the might of the Maccabees in “Anu Nosim Lapidim,” “We are bearing the torches,” and removed the Divine from the holiday, declaring: “No miracle happened for us. No cruse of oil did we find. We walked through the valley, ascended the mountain. We discovered wellsprings of hidden light. We quarried in the stone until we bled: Let there be light!” This anthropocentric ideology is echoed in another famous Zionist anthem composed by Menashe Ravina in 1936, “Mi Yimalel,” which praises Jewish action as opposed to reliance on God. 

There are countless Jewish day school students who sing Mi Yimalel: “Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them? In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.” These songs champion the Maccabees for their nationalistic bravery yet ignore their religious enthusiasm. 

Yet it is no wonder that some critique these songs as fundamentally anti-religious and full of hubris, as they conflict with Zecharia 4:6: “Not by might and not by power but by my Spirit, says Hashem.” From a biblical and theological perspective, true victory comes from the hand of God.

So, who deserves the credit for Hanukkah: God or the Maccabees? Or, in the modern application, who deserves the credit for the state of Israel: do we look upwards or at one another? 

Rabbi Lau answers poignantly, and it is an answer that Jews of all denominations in every country can appreciate:

There is bravery that relies on the “cruse of oil” tradition – the tradition of that ancient, stubborn Judaism which continues to light candles year after year, indifferent to the exigencies of time. Even in the deepest darkness the Jew can find the small jug of oil. This is the power of survival.

There is also bravery which draws on the Hasmonean tradition of fighting and the celebration of independence. This is the bravery of those who refuse to be subject to the kindness of others, and who are willing to give up their lives in order to be sovereign in their land. This is an active bravery, driven by the sense of an earthly mission.

Whether we live in Israel, Australia, Canada, the U.S., U.K., or South Africa, we can all appreciate both aspects of Judaism – the ability to defend ourselves as a people, and the ability to maintain our traditions of a relationship with God. 

Yet perhaps there is an altogether different conclusion: In the book of Devarim (8:17), we, the Jewish people are warned not to say, “Kochi v’otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh,” “Through my might and strength, I created this.” The message of Hanukkah and the emergence of the State of Israel might be that sometimes the building of the state becomes the object of worship, instead of the opportunity to worship. In 1968, following the watershed Six-Day War, the Jewish people celebrated proudly, but Rabbi Norman Lamm, later president of Yeshiva University, warned: 

We have contributed to the dangerous attitude of “Israelolatry” which has made the State an end in itself. In true religious fashion, its worshippers have attributed to their idol the qualities of power, wisdom, and benevolence to an absolute degree. Like all objects of faith, Israel has been exalted beyond criticism. The danger is that, ultimately, the idol will be found to have clay feet. And when that happens, the devotees will blame not their own gullibility but the limitations and inadequacy of the idol. 

As Jewish people, I hope we all continue to celebrate Hanukkah for “eight crazy nights.” I also hope we can use Hanukkah as an opportunity to heal the divide between Israeli and American Jews, who together represent 85% of the world Jewish population. I don’t think we can afford to subscribe to the idea that Israel and American Jews should “consider a trial separation” as one Ha’aretz editorial argued

So what can be done? 

  1. We can start interpreting each other charitably. Rather than imposing our worldviews upon each other and assume the worst in the other, we can start from a place of understanding. 
  2. When speaking with one another, we need to remember that our contexts are genuinely different. That is not a judgment call, but is merely descriptive. Eighteen-year-old Jewish kids in Israel are preparing for the army or national service. Eighteen-year old-Jews in America are preparing for college or work. 
  3. A message to Jews living outside of Israel: Learn Hebrew. This is a message that Arnee Winshall at Hebrew at the Center has been promoting for years. She is absolutely right. I believe that the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken language is among the greatest achievements of Zionism. When we have the opportunity to speak to one another, to listen to one another, let’s all take advantage of that! It is a sui generis achievement. How can we ignore that? It also will help all Jews around the world appreciate the culture and rhythm of the Jewish state and Israelis. 
  4. Finally, let’s celebrate the fact many experience Judaism as a nationality or civilization, while others experience Judaism as a religion, and for others still, it’s both. It is Sisyphean to attempt to convince the other that Judaism is either a religion or a nation. Instead of fighting that fight, let’s celebrate a unique aspect of Judaism – that it can be experienced differently by different people.

This year, let’s celebrate Hanukkah in all its complexity and appreciate the holiday from any perspective that animates us. For the same eight nights, the Jewish people will celebrate together. 

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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