Chanukah Thinking

December 24th-January 1st: Chanukah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s teaching is not specifically tied to the weekly Torah portion, so I use the term Torah in a more expansive sense. Actually, the word Torah has six definitions.
(1) The Five Books of Moses
(2) A scroll of the Five Books of Moses (Sefer Torah)
(3) The Tanach or Hebrew Bible (Torah she’Michtav / Written Torah)—called "Old Testament"  by Christians
(4) The Talmud (Torah she’Ba’al Peh / Oral Torah)
(5) All of Jewish Learning—which begins with the Torah
(6) A lesson from Jewish learning, as in “Here’s a Torah I learned from Reb….”

What I want to address this week are two lessons on the festival of Chanukah, a holiday that is not in Torah according to Definitions #1, #2, and #3, but whose origin and practice exemplify Torah in the sense of Definitions #4, #5, and #6.

Remember our Jewish Time Line. Moses lived around 1200 BCE, so whatever he wrote (The Five Books of Moses) speaks of the time up to the end of his life. The rest of the Hebrew Bible concludes around 500 BCE, and the Chanukah Rebellion does not happen until around 165 BCE. Everything about Chanukah is post-Biblical, which means that what we have is a case of the development of Judaism beyond its Biblical roots.

This notion of the development/invention of a totally new holiday is the first lesson. According to Jewish Tradition, God stopped Prophecy—talking to humans---around 500 BCE. Whatever God had to say was already said and written down in the Bible—and there is no mention of Chanukah in the Bible. Therefore, we have no record of God commanding us to light the Chanukah candles. What is the basis, then, for saying, Asher kid’shanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik ner shel Chanukah/Who sanctified us through the commandments and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights?

The basis is the reformulation of Israelite religion that the Rabbis developed over several centuries, building what we call Rabbinic Judaism on the foundation of Biblical religion. In other words, they took Definitions #1 and #3 and used them as the foundation for creating Definition #4. From roughly 200 BCE to 500 CE, generations of Jewish scholars wrestled with the realities of life and their religious traditions and crafted a magnificent religion which we are still practicing today. They believed that God had given them the authority to keep Torah and the Jewish relationship with God alive and healthy and vibrant. To this end, various new rituals and holidays needed to be created, and Chanukah is one very important example. We say Asher kid’shanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu because God empowered the Rabbis to speak on God’s behalf and to manage our sacred relationship.

The second lesson involves the timing of Chanukah. Does the holiday seem to have “more energy” this year? That was the theory of the late Professor Alvin Reines of the Hebrew Union College. He figured out that the original Chanukah was observed on the Winter Solstice and absorbed the special energy of that time of year, and he believed that Chanukah celebrations closer to the Winter Solstice are qualitatively better than when they occur early in December or late in November. When he first broached this idea in class, many in our class thought that he was attributing Chanukah’s strength to the energy of Christmas—that Chanukah “piggy-backs” on Christmas’ power. That was not his point, at all. He suggested that the placement of Christmas at the Winter Solstice was a strategic move to capture the cosmic energy at this time of the year. It is well known that the actual birthday of Jesus of Nazareth was in the Spring, but the Church authorities setting up the observances of Christianity moved it to coincide with Saturnalia, a big Roman festival at the Winter Solstice. At one level, the move was necessary so that Jesus’s birth could be celebrated at a time other than the Lenten and Easter season—which, theologically, is much more important than Christmas. At another level, the move was an attempt to co-opt the popularity of this light-in-the-midst-of-darkness festival. Dr. Reines’ point is that the energy in the midst of Winter darkness is especially poignant and fertile for religious celebration, and that part of Christmas’ popularity is as a result of this seasonal cosmic and emotional energy.

He also added that the materialism of both Christmas and Chanukah is the result of a harvest festival sensibility that has been an important part of human culture for thousands of years. We who do not live on farms do not have the seasonal rhythm of the agricultural cycle. For 6000 years, human communal life developed patterns of release of anxiety and celebration that have been expressed in various harvest festivals—and modern urbanized society is missing this psycho-social pattern. We need to find something to replicate this seasonal pattern, and it seems that we have subconsciously developed a harvest festival for the end of our tax year and our financial harvest. Thus do Christians and Jews and everyone else regardless of religion go into a kind material frenzy at this time of year. The existential holiday, according to Dr. Reines, is the real source of energy at this time of year, and the fact that religions cannot control the materialism shows how powerful this financial harvest festival is.

Dr. Reines’ theory is hard to quantify or prove, but I have noticed—in the decades since he broached this analysis—that there is indeed a tremendous amount of energy in the air at this time of year, and I always wonder how it inspires, evokes, or innervates our celebratory urges.

Enough thinking! Have a Happy Chanukah and a Wonderful New Year!