Tag: history

That Tiny Cruse of Oil: Truth amidst the Myth

This post was slightly edited from a posting by Rabbi Phil Cohen.  This is wonderful piece on the Truth in Chanukah, or better, the ahistorical truth that still lives on in the non-historical story of the cruse of oil.  For background, you might want to first read the New York Times’ What Historically Happened Back During the Time of the Maccabees and my The True Story of Chanukah. Rabbi Cohen’s writing is another of those “I Wish I Wrote This” articles.  Insightful and significant, the article addresses why we can still believe in legends that are not historical:

Rabbi Phil Cohen writes:
I first learned of the history of the story of that jar of oil on my first visit, pre-interview, to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.  I sat in on an Education class.  The professor demonstrated through the use of texts from the apocryphal books of Maccabees I and II through the place where the Miracle of the Oil first appears in the Talmud, that there is a span of around 650 years between the Maccabean wars and the first sighting of the miracle story.  Hmm…

The Challenge of Legend
There are undoubtedly analyses of this phenomenon which I have read and which I have missed.  But this rationalist presentation teaches me a very great deal.  

  1. Legends arise.  
  2. Legends may not be, and, indeed, likely as not, never happened. 
  3. Legends often, but not always, teach inner truths, their lack of historicity notwithstanding. 
  4. We can eschew the legend and lose the truth or, 
  5. We can embrace the legend and embrace the truth.  
  6. We can embrace the truth and then drash (interpret) on it to find more truth and more truth, ad infinitum.

Meaning Abides
The modernist conundrum has always been, how to keep the baby and lose the bathwater, or some such.  The universal loss of Torah m’Sinai (the non-historical idea that Torah was given at Mt. Sinai) has not resulted in the loss of Torah as the founding Jewish document and never will.

Similarly, the loss of the Chanukah Miracle of the Oil has not resulted in the loss of the chanukkiah, and never will, the power of the chanukkiah being undeniable.  The chanukkiah still produces light; it is always our task both the make that light and, far more important, understand the light and then proclaim that understanding.

It makes no sense to me to stand up and deny the fact that there is inner meaning to the story of that tiny cruse of oil.  Though this amounts to an argument from authority, it’s been going on for a long time–who are we to deny its meaning?  Just what is its meaning?  Ah, that’s our continuing challenge.

Finding Meaning in our Legends
Our task has always been to find meaning, new meaning, and then newer meaning. Our parameters differ from those of our not so distant rabbinic ancestors.  So what? Jews are in the meaning business, no matter what side of the historical divide they find themselves.  Always have been.  That’s why Rabbinic commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Seforno and so forth are all on the same page, right? Because each of the shines new light on ancient truths which allows them to illuminate greater and greater parts of our lives and world.

So let’s fry up some latkes, sing a few songs, light that chanukkiah, and figure out, anew, why we bother.

So how does this article illuminate (or darken) your perspective on Chanukah?  I’d love to know.  

Chag Chanukah Samayach – Happy Chanukah

Why History Matters: The 1967 Six-Day War

If you only read one thing about the Middle East this week, read this. David Harris, Executive Director, AJC and Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, reflects on the actual history of the war and its aftermath, as well as attempts to rewrite that history. [Originally published in Huffington Post]

Mention the word “history” and it can trigger a roll of the eyes. 

Add “Middle East” to the equation and folks might start running for the hills, unwilling to get caught up in the seemingly bottomless pit of details and disputes. 

But without an understanding of what happened, it’s impossible to grasp where we are — and where we are has profound relevance for the region and the world. 

Forty-four years ago this week, the Six-Day War broke out. 

While some wars fade into obscurity, this one remains as relevant today as in 1967. Many of its core issues remain unresolved and in the news. 

Politicians, diplomats, and journalists continue to grapple with the consequences of that war, but rarely provide context. Yet without context, some critically important things may not make sense. 

First, in June 1967, there was no state of Palestine. It didn’t exist and never had. Its creation, proposed by the UN in 1947, was rejected by the Arab world because it also meant the establishment of a Jewish state alongside. 

Second, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem were in Jordanian hands. Violating solemn agreements, Jordan denied Jews access to their holiest places in eastern Jerusalem. To make matters still worse, they destroyed many of those sites. 

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control, with harsh military rule imposed on local residents. 

And the Golan Heights, which were regularly used to shell Israeli communities far below, belonged to Syria. 

Third, the Arab world could have created a Palestinian state in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip any day of the week. They didn’t. There wasn’t even discussion about it. And Arab leaders, who today profess such attachment to eastern Jerusalem, rarely, if ever, visited. It was viewed as an Arab backwater. 

Fourth, the 1967 boundary at the time of the war, so much in the news these days, was nothing more than an armistice line dating back to 1949 — familiarly known as the Green Line. That’s after five Arab armies attacked Israel in 1948 with the aim of destroying the embryonic Jewish state. They failed. Armistice lines were drawn, but they weren’t formal borders. They couldn’t be. The Arab world, even in defeat, refused to recognize Israel’s very right to exist. 

Fifth, the PLO, which supported the war effort, was established in 1964, three years before the conflict erupted. That’s important because it was created with the goal of obliterating Israel. Remember that in 1964 the only “settlements” were Israel itself. 

Sixth, in the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War, Egyptian and Syrian leaders repeatedly declared that war was coming and their objective was to wipe Israel off the map. There was no ambiguity. Twenty-two years after the Holocaust, another enemy spoke about the extermination of Jews. The record is well-documented. 

The record is equally well-documented that Israel, in the days leading up to the war, passed word to Jordan, via the UN and United States, urging Amman to stay out of any pending conflict. Jordan’s King Hussein ignored the Israeli plea and tied his fate to Egypt and Syria. His forces were defeated by Israel, and he lost control of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. 

Seventh, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded that UN peacekeeping forces in the area, in place for the previous decade to prevent conflict, be removed. Shamefully, the UN complied. That left no buffer between Arab armies being mobilized and deployed and Israeli forces in a country one-fiftieth the size of Egypt — and just nine miles wide at its narrowest point. 

Eighth, Egypt blocked Israeli shipping lanes in the Red Sea, Israel’s only maritime access to trading routes with Asia and Africa. This step was regarded as an act of war by Jerusalem. The United States spoke about joining with other countries to break the blockade, but did not act. 

Ninth, France, which had been Israel’s principal arms supplier, announced a ban on the sale of weapons on the eve of the June war. That left Israel in potentially grave danger if a war were to drag on and require the resupply of arms. It was not until the next year that the U.S. stepped into the breach and sold vital weapons systems to Israel. 

And finally, after winning the war of self-defense, Israel hoped that its newly-acquired territories, seized from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, would be the basis of a land-for-peace accord. Feelers were sent out. The formal response came on September 1, 1967, when the Arab Summit Conference famously declared in Khartoum “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations” with Israel. 

Today, there are those who wish to rewrite history. 

They want the world to believe there was once a Palestinian state. There was not. 

They want the world to believe there were fixed borders between that state and Israel. There was only an armistice line between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. 

They want the world to believe the 1967 war was a bellicose act by Israel. It was an act of self-defense in the face of blood-curdling threats to vanquish the Jewish state, not to mention the maritime blockade of the Straits of Tiran, the abrupt withdrawal of UN peacekeeping forces, and the redeployment of Egyptian and Syrian troops. All wars have consequences; this one was no exception. But the Arab aggressors have failed to take responsibility for the actions they instigated. 

They want the world to believe post-1967 Israeli settlement-building is the key to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Six-Day War is proof positive that the core issue is, and always has been, whether the Arab world accepts the Jewish people’s right to a state of their own. If so, all other contentious issues, however difficult, have possible solutions. 

And they want the world to believe the Arab world had nothing against Jews per se, only Israel, yet trampled with abandon on sites of sacred meaning to the Jewish people. 

In other words, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, dismissing the past as if it were a minor irritant at best, irrelevant at worst, won’t work. 

Can history move forward? Absolutely. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 prove the point. At the same time, though, the lessons of the Six-Day War illustrate just how tough and tortuous the path can be.

For more information, visit ajc.org.

What Happened Historically Back in Israel During the Time of the Maccabees?

8 Blogs for 8 Nights of Chanukah
Blog #3: The True Story of Chanukah: Complex, Bloody, Challenging

Question: Chanukah Is About More than Lights and Menorah. What Happened Historically Back in Israel During the Time of the Maccabees?

David Brooks (NYTimes columnist) writes in his article titled The Hanukkah Story:

Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

Now read Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Chanukah as the Second Sukkot: True Story of Chanukah

[Reprinted from David Brooks (New York Times), The Hanukkah Story, December 2009]

  • For Chanukah Resources to enhance your celebration – songsheets, blessing sheets, 8 Nights of Chanukah Tzedakah, 8 stories, and more – go to www.orami.org/chanukah
  • Come back each night to the blog (http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com) for more 8 Blogs for 8 Nights: Answers to Questions You Never Thought About, which enhance your understanding of Chanukah.
  • If you would answer today’s question differently, or have other Chanukah ideas/questions, please share your insights in a comment. I will make a donation to tzedakah for every comment written.