The militant secularists that began to dominate the World Zionist Organization were “Chanukah-challenged” with regard to finding a way to interpret and celebrate this festival of our nation. One major reason is because the heroes of the Chanukah story were devout Jews who fought to preserve the path of the Torah – the very path that these secular Zionists rejected! In addition, the Festival of Chanukah was not established when the Jews finally achieved political independence; instead, the Festival of Chanukah was established at an early stage of the struggle when the Temple service was renewed – an accomplishment which these secular Zionists could not easily identify with.
Another challenge they faced is that the Chanukah story is also a story of a civil war among the Jews. On one side, there were the Hellenist Jews who encouraged the Syrian Greek rulers to force the Jewish people to become a “modern” western people in the spirit of Greek culture, and on the other side were the devout Maccabees and their followers who fought to preserve our spiritual identity as the People of the Torah. This posed a challenge, as many secular Zionists identified in some ways with the Hellenists.
These secular Zionists did not, however, identify with the willingness of the Jewish Hellenists to be ruled by the Syrian Greeks. This nationalistic pride gave them a reason to identify in one way with the devout Maccabees and their followers, as these devout Jews eventually succeeded in liberating the land from the rule of the Syrian Greeks. The World Zionist Organization therefore turned the Festival of Chanukah into a holiday which celebrates the military victories of the Maccabees. To encourage the development of physical strength among young Jews, the W.Z.O. also turned Chanukah into a festival for sports competitions which in certain ways were patterned after the Greek Olympics which glorified masculine physical strength; in fact, this sports festival became known in some circles as, the “Jewish Olympics.” Ironically, the W.Z.O. called these Jewish Olympics by the Hebrew name, “Maccabiah” – a title which can cause us to forget that the Maccabees fought against the introduction of Hellenist values into Zion, including the Hellenist idolization of masculine physical strength.
An example of this idolization was the gymnasium built by the Hellenist High Priest in Jerusalem, in close proximity to the Holy Temple. Before the sports games would begin in this gymnasium, sacrifices were offered to Heracles (Hercules), a Greek demigod who symbolized masculine physical strength and who, according to one myth, was the founder of the Greek Olympics.
The schools established by the W.Z.O. tended to focus on the military strength of ancient Israel and the might of its warriors, especially when they discussed Chanukah, and they did not focus on the message of the Prophets of Israel regarding our mission to fulfill the Torah in the Land of Zion and thereby become a “light” to the nations. Their approach to Chanukah was an abandonment of our nation’s spiritual understanding of the Chanukah story. As an example of this spiritual understanding, I will cite the following ancient Chanukah prayer which focuses on the spiritual cause for the rebellion against the Greeks; moreover, this prayer attributes the victory over our enemies to the Redeeming One and not to our physical might and strength:
“In the days of Mattisyahu, the son Yochanan, the High Priest, the Chashmonean, and his sons – when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your Will – You in Your great compassion stood up for them in the time of their distress. You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah. For Yourself, You made a great and holy Name in Your world, and for Your people Israel You worked a great victory and salvation as this very day. Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of Your holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great Name.” (This prayer is added to the “Shemoneh Esrei” and the “Grace After Meals” during Chanukah.)
The Chanukah story reminds us
that our eternal existence as a
people depends on our loyalty to
the spiritual values of our
heritage. There were some
secular Zionist leaders,
however, who felt that our
eternal existence only depends
on our military strength. This
belief was expressed a number of
years ago by the current Defense
Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak,
at a memorial for the poet, Uri
Tzvi Greenberg, known as “Atzag”:
”But like Atzag, I believe that only Jewish defense forces can ensure our eternal existence. We trust in ourselves and not in others, and not to the mercy of heaven – ourselves and our commanders of the Israeli Defense Forces!” (Jerusalem Post Supplement “In Jerusalem” – Oct. 22, 1999)
Barak’s vision regarding the cause of our eternal existence is a rejection of the ancient vision of the Prophet Zechariah regarding the true cause of our eternal existence. The following passage describing this vision is chanted on the Shabbos of Chanukah:
The angel who spoke with me returned and woke me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?”
I said, “I see and behold! – There is a menorah made entirely of gold with its bowl on its top; its seven lamps are upon it, and there are seven pipes (with olive oil) to each of the lamps that are on its top. And two olive trees are near it, one to the right of the bowl and one to its left.”
I spoke up and said to the angel who was speaking to me, saying, “What do these mean, my lord?” The angel who was speaking to me answered and said, “Do you not understand what these mean?” And I said, “No, my lord.” He answered and said to me, stating, “This is the word of Hashem to Zerubabel, saying:
‘Not through the might of arms and not through physical strength, but through My spirit, said Hashem, God of the hosts of creation.’ ” (Zechariah 4:1-6)
Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, which this year starts on Sunday evening, December 21st.