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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

One comment

  1. ben Zvi says:

    Where is the justification for the assumption that the Sinaitic revelation and the oil cruse are non-historical? Isn't that a condition precedent for the completeness of the logical flow of the article?
    Suppose, for instance, that when the rebels found the little cache of oil, one of them said "Matt, if this lasts long enough to cover us while more oil is purified, it'll be a miracle!" And it did, so it was.

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