Sunday, December 19, 2004


Chanukah oh Chanukah!

This is late (Chanukah ended last Wednesday), but I didn't read it until today, and it's wonderful, so I'm blogging it now. It's my blog and I'll blog what I want to. So there. Nyah.
For the Miracles

Anyone who's been reading Baraita for more than a few months knows that this is the wrong place to come for griping about holidays: there are very few holidays I dislike, even the less obviously propitious ones. I mean, sure, the Maccabees sound suspiciously like the Taliban if you read the right sources. But Hanukkah's been a Jewish holiday for approximately 2000 years, which means it's overdetermined out the wazoo and anyone with a decent working knowledge of history should be able to find something they like about it - or, more precisely, something that resonates with their experience, since I like Maoz Tsur but I'm kind of iffy about repelling Edom.

The way I see it, many of the earliest rabbis weren't particularly big fans of the Hasmoneans either; the whole priest-king thing was bad enough, but the Hasmonean habit of having multiple claimants to the throne, at least one of whom was almost guaranteed to think crucifying Pharisees was A-OK, probably didn't help any. When the Tannaim started transforming the Hasmonean military victory into a tale of miraculously efficient oil, they were clearly working against the tendency to view the Hanukkah story as a glorification of anyone except just possibly the conveniently deceased and descendant-free Judah. (In fact, you can find several parallel Talmud passages asserting that any contemporary individual claiming to be a descendant of the Hasmoneans is actually the offspring of a slave.) But the rabbis didn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, they gave us a bit of liturgical hocus-pocus which happens to be right up my alley.

If you think about it - and I do - you will realize that the Hanukkah al ha-nisim narrative is a classic piece of flag-waving foreskin-removing Hasmonean propaganda. It refers to Mattathias as High Priest (a claim nobody except the Hasmoneans ever took seriously), emphasizes a divinely led rebellion against the evil impure Empire of the Greeks (instead of, say, the slightly more Hellenized Jews), ignores Judah (remember, none of them were descended from him) in favor of general encomiums about the righteous pure observant Hasmoneans, waxes disturbingly enthusiastic about the purification of the Temple and the rekindling of the Temple lights, and never once mentions anything about an oil miracle. Some scholars theorize that it might actually be the official Hasmonean account of the victory over the Seleucids, designed to be read as a glorification of their new dynasty. But those wacky rabbis slotted the Hasmoneans' Hanukkah story into the liturgy in just the right place to pick up on its final line: "they established these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praise to [God's] great name." Al ha-nisim eventually wound up being incorporated into the Amidah, not within the Avodah prayer the way the pilgrimage festivals are commemorated,* but within the Hoda'ah - the prayer thanking God for all God's wonders, ordinary and extraordinary.

Add in one really good story about miraculous oil, stir, and you've got yourself a good old-fashioned rabbinic Hanukkah - open miracle, light on the Hasmoneans, heavy on the latkes. (Okay, those may have come along later, but I bet they had some sort of fried cakes.) As a general rule I have no trouble thanking God for miracles, provided that I don't have to buy into the particularly syrupy ones on the PAX Network, but this Jewish year - since Sukkot, give or take - has been especially joyful and miraculous for me, and so this year Hanukkah is as natural as breathing, as natural as swaying in prayer, as natural as bending at modim anachnu lach. When I light candles each night, I remember that I have friends near and far with whom I can share this holiday, I have a wonderful online community of people from whom I can learn -- and I have miracles, ordinary and extraordinary.

Oh, fine, I have chocolate gelt too, and really nifty teeny-weeny silver dreidel earrings. But this year, I'm focusing on the miracles.

* -- Given the extent to which Hanukkah is liturgically parallel to Sukkot, I wouldn't be surprised if some version of its commemoration had started out somewhere in the earliest versions of the Avodah prayer - but that gets us into the incredibly hazy area of Second Temple and early rabbinic liturgy, and so far out of my expertise that I am merely speculating.
Latkes are my favorite food. I consider them a minor miracle, so anything that brought them about has to be a major miracle.

Seriously, Chanukah is a minor holiday, but then so is Purim. (At least Purim is in the Bible.) Chanukah, as I've said, unfortunately gets assimilated to Christmas, which is partly a shame, considering that a huge part of its meaning is the Jews' refusal to assimilate. Calling Mattathias akin to the Taliban is not quite right, but it's not entirely wrong, either. I don't follow all the mitzvot myself, and I would hate to be murdered as a heretic, but without the Maccabees' intransigence, there might not be any Jews left today. So the legacy of Chanukah is more complicated than I want to deal with here. Fortunately, there are always the latkes.
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