The Dual Facets of Hanukkah

Every person has a public and a private personality. The public self is how we present ourselves to others. The private self is where lie our hopes, our fears and our spiritual yearnings. The emotionally healthy individual, more or less, keeps the two aspects of self in balance. The disturbed human being is unable to do so. The private self is sacrificed for the public one, or the public life is effaced and the private one made dominant.

Religions also have public and private selves. The ancient Romans whose saturnalia celebration held at the winter solstice, when the daylight hours of sun are fewest, was the pagan counterpart to the Jewish Hanukkah and later the Christian Christmas. It was all materialistic and external. A mardi gras environment prevailed with public entertainment and parades.

In contrast, the Jewish Hanukkah began as a profoundly inward, spiritual experience. Its source is the book of Daniel, chapters 7-12 in the Hebrew Bible, written by an apocalyptic visionary at the beginning of the Maccabean persecutions. Its focus is on the Jewish martyrs, their resurrection at the End of Days and their heavenly reward. In these dark times, the author, using enigmatic language, describes the revolt of the Maccabees as “a little help.”

The public persona of Hanukkah is found in the First Book of the Maccabees. There we get a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, their ultimate victory and the establishment of an independent Jewish state ruled by Maccabean high priest-kings. The Second Book of Maccabees describes the early battles and victories of Judah Maccabee and the Jewish guerilla army against the overwhelming Syrian Hellenists. But it also focuses on the courage of the martyrs who suffered and gave their lives. It emphasizes that the strength of the Jews lies in the fulfillment  of the practical observances (mitzvot), and faith in God. This is what made possible the victories of Judah Maccabee and his men. Clearly the author of this book is seeking to establish a balance between the public realm of Judaism, the early victories of the Maccabees, and the inner soul realm, the faith and courage of the martyrs and their observance of the commandments.

As the later Maccabean high priest-kings succumbed to the religious and ethical-moral corruptions of the Greco-Roman world, the Essenes and the Qumran community withdrew to their own spiritual communities in the Dead Sea region. They gave up on the public persona of Judaism and concentrated on its inner soul. Similarly, the Rabbis of the Talmud, living after the destruction of the Temple, also viewed the latter day Maccabees with a critical eye. For them, it was God’s miracle of the oil for the eternal light in the Temple that sufficed for only one day but burned for eight days that was the basis for the holiday. Their only acknowledgment of Hanukkah‘s public face, the victory of the Maccabees, is very brief- and emphasizes God’s miracle of the triumph “of the few over the many.” The entire focus is on the inner dimension of Judaism.

Fast forward many centuries to the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. The destruction of the great spiritual center of East European Jewry focused Jewish attention on the inner dimension of Judaism. The song of the martyrs, “Ani ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah,” was incorporated into Jewish observances. But the victories of the Israel Defense Forces against overwhelming enemies overshadowed the martyrs of the Holocaust. For a while in Israel and the diaspora there was an attempt to distance Jewish consciousness from the passivity of the martyrs. The emphasis was on the “new Jews” including partisans who fought the Nazis and the Israel Defense Forces.

This emphasis on the public persona of Judaism has succeeded so well in our secular world that there is a clear danger of losing Judaism’s spiritual dimension. This is in spite of Holocaust Museums and Holocaust Remembrance Days. Thus, the challenge is to remember the spiritual heroes of¬†Hanukkah, extending from the martyrs of the Book of Daniel, to Eliezer and Hannah and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees, to the talmudic focus on the miracle of the oil for the eternal light, to the martyrs of the Holocaust and those killed in terrorist attacks in the land of Israel. In remembering them along with the Maccabees of old, and those in the Israel Defense Forces, we restore the critical balance to the Jewish tradition.

The lighting of large menorahs at public sites and gala community celebrations of Hanukkah are important. They are Judaism’s public face. But let us not forget to light the small Hanukkah candles in our menorahs at home. These are symbolic of Judaism’s inner soul. As the sage in the biblical Book of Proverbs reminds us: “The candle of God is the soul of the human being revealing all the inmost parts”(Proverbs 20:27).

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About Rabbi Joseph Schultz, PhD

Dr. Joseph Schultz served as Rabbi for congregations in Brookline, MA, Norwich, CT and Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schultz founded the Jewish Studies Program at Boston University where he was Assistant Professor of Religion and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he was Oppenstein Brothers Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. He helped establish the Center for Religious Studies in 1996, a consortium of six colleges, theological schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offering an interdisciplinary graduate program for the PhD in Religious Studies. Dr. Schultz was its first director.

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