Hanukkah After Rabin

Hanukkah, normally a relatively minor religious holiday, will be of incredible significance when it is celebrated this year beginning on December 18. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin gives Hanukkah a whole new lens by which religious and non-religious Jews alike will view this holiday. Joel Gayman, a Brandeis University-trained sociology professor and prominent activist with New Jewish Agenda, Peace Now and other groups, points out that Israelis will be celebrating Hanukkah around the time the Israel Defense Force is scheduled to pull out of the areas of Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron. As in the United States, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is mostly seen as a holiday celebrating a nationalist military victory by the Maccabees who led the Jews in revolt against the Syrian Greek overlord Antiochus, who defiled the temple with Greek idols. When they took back the Temple, they cleansed it, and rededicated it; thus Hanukkah means "dedication." Hanukkah, explains Gayman, only became a somewhat important holiday about 100 years ago. It was then that Jews began to emerge from the ghetto, encountering Christmas and seeing the need to emphasize their own tradition. Similarly, it's important holiday in Israel as a response to the pilgrims that always turn up in Jerusalem and Bethlehem around Christmas. To a certain extent, Hanukkah is a winter solstice celebration. "It comes at the coldest, darkest, most depressing time of the year," explains Gayman. "It represents a revolt of light against both physical and spiritual darkness. The miracle of one day's oil lasting for the eight days of candle-lighting shows it's never too late to chase away the dark and to capture hope from despair. It is the yearning for spring and reawakening. "In the wake of Rabin's assassination and the political and religious conflicts, there's a real question of which of the two major interpretations of Hanukkah Jews will follow: the nationalist or the prophetic?" Gayman says the nationalist interpretation glorifies the use of force and power. Yet historically, the Maccabees' regime was disastrous; it led to an illicit dynasty and dictatorship, and a lot of internecine blood letting. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis sought to preserve the religion by putting less emphasis on the Temple and the land. The prophetic interpretation that arose was because the rabbis were afraid of a nationalistic, military interpretation for the holiday, and also Judaism preserved as a religion maintained by a priestly class which ran the Temple. Accordingly, in the rabbinical prophetic tradition the passage from Zachariah which reads, "Not by might and not by power but by spirit, sayeth Yaweh" is what is read during Hanukkah today. Interestingly, it is the far religious right who want to bring back the Temple, the priests and the sacrifices, Gayman says. And what's ironic was that it was Rabin, a secular Jew, who was one of the most outstanding proponents of the exercise of Jewish military power there. It was Rabin as general who won the West Bank for Israel in 1967 originally. It was Rabin who said power and beatings would defeat the Palestinians. But then he recognized the realities and embarked on a path renouncing might and power, by recognizing that Israel would best survive by following the path of reconciliation, and putting the lives of Jews and Palestinians above the security that came from possessing land. Gayman thinks that the religious right is a kind of aberrant cult today, a cult built on the worship of land rather than the actual religion; he believes secular Israelis helped them get there by encouraging settlements on the West Bank and giving them money to run religious schools and settlements on the West Bank following the 1967 War. Still, Gayman suggests that this Hanukkah, rather than demonizing the religious Orthodox right, secular Jews should embrace the idea is that "we too are following a spiritual and not a materialistic path, one that all Jews and our Muslim and Christian neighbors can share. That's the true spiritual mission of Israel."

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