Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chanukah 2014

As many of you know, we had a remarkable guest at Shelter Rock last week. Both performance pieces by Helen Gottstein, originally of Australia but now for many years a proud Israeli (and a neighbor of ours in Jerusalem), were excellent and very well received, but it was a sequence in her second presentation that suggested to me the topic I wish to write to you all about this week. And it’s a Chanukah-based point at that! (Non-Shelter-Rockers reading this who might be interested in bringing Helen to perform in their communities can find out more on her website at I think I can promise you that you won’t be disappointed!)

The Shabbat afternoon performance was called “Four Faces of Israel” and featured Helen depicting the same basic set of issues as seen and interpreted by four different women of today’s Jerusalem. There was no introduction at all, though, and she just started speaking as a ḥareidi woman from one of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities. People who attended Friday evening obviously understood that she was acting. But at least some who were present on Saturday but who hadn’t been there the night before didn’t realize that this was an act and took her actually to be the woman she was portraying…and, not fully seizing that this was theater, responded vigorously to some of the things she said, and particularly to her sharp comments about the legitimacy of the secular government of Israel in this unredeemed, pre-messianic world. Her argument—or rather, her character’s argument—was a familiar one: that, because the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is meant only to come on the other side of the redemptive moment, the establishment of a secular Jewish state will only impede and can in any event surely not hasten the dawn of redemption. By definition, she said, a secular government in Israel established and sustained through human effort is an abomination; the legitimate government will be the one established by a messiah of the House of David sent to gather in the exiles, to preside over the resurrection of the dead, and to usher the world into the state of post-messianic salvation promised by the prophets of old.

We’ve all heard that before. But it struck me while listening to her that there could be an interesting way to respond that actually is fully rooted in our tradition, one that has to do with the story of Chanukah as it is often told…or rather mistold.  I wrote about this detail in a letter to you all about five years ago, but now I see it in a new light…and so I would like to write about it again now and draw a new conclusion as a way of responding to the argument put forward by Helen’s ḥareidi woman character.

Everybody knows at least the basic outline of the story of the miracle of Ḥanukkah. The Temple had been desecrated by the minions of the evil King Antiochus. Finally, after a great battle and at the cost of many live, the Maccabees soundly defeated the king’s armies and retook Jerusalem. Their first job, of course, was to re-establish the ongoing service in the Temple that functioned in ancient times as the core of Jewish worship, as the living symbol of ongoing Jewishness in the world. This was a complex undertaking and there were obviously many different parts to this effort, but the most potent symbolically was the rekindling of the great candelabrum that stood housed in the chamber just to the east of the Holy of Holies. In that sanctum stood three sacred appurtenances: the aforementioned candelabrum (that is, the golden m’norah), the table upon which rested the showbread that was changed from week to week, and the golden incense altar. Each was a potent symbol in its own right and each was restored by the conquering heroes. But it was specifically with respect to the rekindling of the golden m’norah that the story of the Ḥanukkah miracle unfolded.

The m’norah had to be lit with pure olive oil that had been bottled under the supervision of the High Priest. The oil was kept in small jugs, each able to hold one day’s worth of oil. And this is where the story as preserved in our ancient sources deviates from the way the story is almost always told. In both versions, the trigger to the miracle is the discovery of one single jug of oil still bearing the seal of the High Priest. That was good…but not quite good enough: it took a full week to prepare olive oil in the specific way that guaranteed its ritual acceptability but there was now in reserve only enough oil for a single day, and so a miracle was wrought to symbolize God’s willing participation in the rededication of the Temple. But what exactly was that miracle? As told to me as a boy, and as repeated by myself to countless Nursery and Hebrew School children, the miracle had to do with the oil: they kindled the golden m’norah and then, instead of burning up and out, the oil somehow diminished only slightly that first day, then a little more the next day, and a little more the day after that. In fact, the oil burnt down so slowly that by the time it actually was all gone, enough time had passed for new oil to have been successfully prepared. The m’norah, representing God’s holy presence in that place, remained lighted.

The only problem is that that is specifically not how the story is told in the Talmud, its sole ancient source. In that version of the story, the miracle has to do with the jug that was only large enough to hold one day’s supply of oil. Yet, when they poured the oil out into the cups of the m’norah, there was somehow still oil left in the clay jug. And so they poured it out a second day, then a third. This went on for eight whole days, the magic jug never running dry even though it was only large enough—or rather it only looked large enough from the outside, something like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag—to hold enough oil for one single day. It was the jug itself that was the focus of the miracle then, not really the oil: the point isn’t that this was magic oil that burnt and burnt without burning up, but that this was a magic jug out from which oil could be poured over and over without the jug ever running dry.

So who cares? They’re not the same, the popular and ancient versions…but surely they’re close enough for the difference to be unimportant. But, as Flaubert wrote, God lives in the details and the effort to parse this specific detail leads, circuitously but not unconvincingly (I hope), to a way to respond to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady and her harsh dismissal of the legitimacy of the modern State of Israel and its democratically-elected government.

We’ve heard of that magic jug before! Shul-Jews will know it from the haftarah for the Torah portion called Va-yeira. More literary types will know it from the beginning of the fourth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. But in any event the story concerns a poor widow who, confronted by debts she could not manage, implored the prophet Elisha for help. (Once the premier disciple of Elijah, at this point in the biblical narrative Elisha is a prophet in his own right possessed of the ability almost supernaturally to help people—later on this same chapter, he resurrects a dead child and restores the boy to his mother—and to do good in the world.) And help her he does! She reports that all she has in the house of any value is a jug of oil, whereupon Elisha tells her to go to all her neighbors and to borrow as many pots and jars as she can. Then, when she returns home, he instructs her to pour the oil from her single jug into one of the borrowed pots. She does so, but there is still oil left in the jug so she pours what’s left into a second pot. Or she thinks that’s what she’s doing, but it turns out that there is still oil left in the jug! You see where this is going, I’m sure. She fills up all the many borrowed pots, the oil not running out until the very last pot was filled to the brim. And then Elisha solves her problem easily: “Sell the oil,” he tells her, “and pay off your debtors…and you and your children can live on the rest!”

After the reign of King Solomon, the Jewish kingdom split in two. The biblical historians are united in their estimation of this development: the southern kingdom of Judah—with its David-descended king and its capital at Jerusalem—was legitimate, and the northern kingdom of Israel was illegitimate and ought not to have existed. That opinion is expressed countless times in Scripture…but there’s a problem: on at least three separate occasion an authentic prophet of God appears nonetheless to confer legitimacy on the non-David-descended king of the north, thus implying divine acquiescence to the reign of a king whose kingdom should not have existed in the first place. And one of those prophets was none other than Elisha ben Shafat, the very man of God who wrought the original miracle with the jug of oil. (Nor is there any ambiguity in the story: Elisha is depicted as sending his own disciple to anoint one Jehu ben Nimshi as king of Israel with the specific, unambiguous words “Thus saith the Lord: I anoint you king of Israel.”)

And why would the rabbis have sought to tell a story about Chanukah that brought Elisha to mind? The answer rests on a detail that most of my readers will probably not know: that after the Maccabees were done being war heroes and Temple restorers, then became sufficiently enamored of their own authenticity and self-arrogated authority to declare themselves kings of Israel…despite the fact that they were kohanim of the tribe of Levi and not descendants of David at all. By bringing Elisha subtly to the story, then, the rabbis were crafting a kind of a response to Helen Gottstein’s ḥareidi lady. The Maccabees weren’t “real” kings of Israel, they are saying almost clearly, just usurpers who arrogantly and illegally wore a crown they had set upon their own heads. (Maccabean kingship didn’t last that long either—only about forty years, starting in about 104 BCE.) But they were, the rabbis are signalling subtly, to be remembered for the good they wrought, not for their sinful hubris. They were, therefore, somehow inauthentic without being fully illegitimate and the moral of the story is that the day-to-day governance of the nation can sometimes unfold outside the specific path forward to the great day of national redemption of which the prophets spoke, a path which only the naïve will imagine was not going to have any detours at all along the way.

And that is what I would say to Helen’s irritating lady. Yes, I would say, it’s true: the government of Israel is led by individuals who were chosen not by God but by the voting populace. Their decisions are made not by rabbis, let alone by prophets, but by the leaders the people have set at their helm in positions of power and trust. The will of the people, as in any democracy, is thus the guiding force in the governance of the nation, even when it is impossible (which is all the time) to know if specific decisions made do or don’t correspond precisely to the will of God. Just like the Maccabees in ancient times, the government of modern Israel exists without reference to the great redemptive narrative that has always guided, and which continues to guide, the fortunes of the Jewish people in a generally hostile world.  Yet, despite that, it is a force for great good, a government of the people that reflects the national will of Israel in a way no self-appointed leader ever truly could. And that is the specific lesson Elisha steps invisibly—but not entirely unreally—into the Chanukah story to teach. It’s a lesson the ḥareidi population of Israel and their fellow-travelers elsewhere in the world would do well to learn: sometimes the good of the people rests in what is good for the people, not in the details of the cosmic endgame towards which the House of Israel ever strives.

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