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The Jewish Miracle
In the year 587 before the common era, the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Judaeans were deported to Babylon: this was the Babylonian exile. In 536, thanks to Cyprus, the Judaeans returned home and rebuilt their Temple, albeit under the domination of satraps: this was the Persian exile. In 333 Judaea passed into the hands of the Greeks and remained under the domination of Alexander of Macedonia and his successors for two hundred years: the iDiadochi from 333-301, the Ptolemys from 301-200 and finally the Seleucids from 200-140. This was the Greek exile: Galout Yawan.
The Greek exile, like the Persian exile, took place in the Holy Land and included neither deportation nor the destruction of the sanctuary. But, contrary to the Egyptian Ptolemys who, faithful to the ancient Egyptian civilisation, did not seek to impose Greek civilisation on the countries governed by them, the Syrian Seleucids tried to unite all the subject peoples by means of Hellenistic culture.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the enlightened) or Epymanus (the mad) encountered Jews in Judaea — nouveaux-riches, new property owners, state officials, high priests and publicans — who had abandoned their traditions and opened themselves to Hellenism. In the face of these Hellenists, the small tradespeople, the lower clergy, the poor farmers, country folk and working people, remained faithful to the Jewish tradition and were hostile to the new customs. They were called Hasidim, Antiochus was obliged to go to Jerusalem twice, in 170 and 168, to massacre the Hasidim, forbid the Shabbat, circumcision and study of the Torah; he also erected a statue of Olympian Zeus on the altar and sacrificed a pig there!
We are familiar with the splendid resistance of the Hasidim who heard the call of the priest Mattathias and his sons from the little town of Modein. We likewise know of their military victories and the effort to purify the Temple. accompanied and supported by the miracle of the cruse of oil. The Gemara has recorded it in two places, in the tractate Shabbat and in the Megillat Ta'anit:
"What is Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: On the twentyfifth of Kislew [commences) the days of Hanukkah which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple. they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest but which contained sufficient for one days lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. " (Shabbat 21b).
The Historical Reading: the Peshat
The Talmud is silent on the Judaean war of independence waged by the Maccabees, although it was a war that was perfectly jusfiifed and crowned by victory. Moreover to show the final objective of this war, the Maccabees went to the Temple to re-establish worship there in its pristine purity. The reason for the resistance of the Hasidim to the Syrians was the interdict on study of Torah, Shabbat, circumcision etc. It was the risk of losing their religious identity and not politics which caused the uprising of faithful Jews and the Priests who led them. Why, then, is the Talmud almost totally silent about these events?
Moreover the books of the Maccabees do not form part of the biblical canon even though the first book was written a century after the events either in Hebrew or in Aramaic. We are obliged to go to the Christian bible for knowledge of the history of the feast! The Talmud is clear and to the point: to nittan nes Hanouccah le hikkateb". It is not permitted to write down the miracle of Hanukkah (Noma 29a). In fact the rabbis did not want to make themselves accomplices in a falsification of history. Flavius Josephus shows that there were two distinct periods in the struggle for independence in the Maccabean wars and their unhappy consequences. Firstly there was the time of the Maccabees themselves. By going to the Temple and re-inaugurating the cult they wanted to wash their hands clean of the blood of a war even though it was a just one. The miracle of the cruse of oil was a confirmation of their intentions and of their faith. For them Yisra'el was on earth to witness to the spiritual and ethical life, not to gain military victories, even if they had to win wars in order to survive. The miracle was a sign that the military victory was necessary only because it allowed Yisra'el to live and to witness to the ethical life and the spirit. However there was also the time of the successors to the Maccabees and the politicians who, on the false pretext of exclusively political independence and with constant reference to the earlier heroes, led the State into moral decadence and political and social strife. They now had nothing in common with the Hasidic resistance fighters from the time of the miracle.
During more than three centuries of foreign domination under the Persians and the Greeks, the Hasidim did not complain too much about taxes, ransoms, pillage, foreign garrisons and their upkeep, as long as their religion was not under attack. It was only when the statue of Zeus was set up in the Temple and a pig sacrificed there and when it became dangerous to circumcise, keep the Shabbat and study Torah that the Hasidim, and only they, rebelled. Unhappily their victory and their spirit were taken over by assimilated Jews and by the Hellenists who diverted the miracle of religious liberty and the ethical motivations of the Hasidim from their original purpose. They ended by leading the country into catastrophe. The Hasidim had no other choice but to separate themselves from the Hellenists and the leaders of the time. They isolated themselves and became known as Perushim (Pharisees) or Separated Ones. The remarkable thing is that the Hasidim-Pharisees who were the fathers of the Talmud did not wish to record therein their war and the military victory against the Seleucids. They wished to transmit to the faithful posterity the true miracle: that of the flask of oil. They therefore wrote: "What is Hanukkah? The miracle of the cruse of oil capable of burning for eight days". This is not then the miracle of a military victory.
Allusive reading: Remez
The reader will have caught on: the feast of Hanukkah refers us back to the permanent dialectic between the miracle of the cruse of oil which allowed the Temple cult to begin again and the miracle of the liberation of the land from foreign occupation. Politics and Ethics, State and God, People and Army — how to live in the midst of these conflicting couples?
But there is another allusion in Talmudic teaching, to what seems to .be a certain impatience and a fault in the priests purifying the Temple. In fact they knew that the cruse of oil which had been found would only last twenty four hours. They should have waited for the seventh day before lighting the lamp and meanwhile they could have prepared more oil. Why did they light the lamp and thereby risk the flame dying out since a week was required to prepare the oil for the candelabra? We are given another allusion in the difference between the Temple candelabra which was seven-branched and the menorot we light today which have eight branches. We should celebrate Hanukkah with historical fidelity by lighting menorot with seven branches like the Temple candelabra. Vet another allusion is to be found in the duration of the miracle: the cruse should last only a day but it lasts eight days; the miracle only covers seven days. Why light the menorah during eight days?
There are other allusions (remazim), which make it possible to discover behind the historical problematic (Peshat), the more general messianic problematic. In fact it is not simply a question of politics and ethics, it is above all concerned with the liberation of individuals and peoples, the liberation of history by the coming of messianic times, of ways which give access to the world of the "eighth" day, starting from the world of seven in which the Torah has left us since the first chapter of the Creation. It is of some concern to notice that the name given to the Maccabees was Hachmona'im (the Hasmoneans), which signifies literally "the eightists", the men of the messianic eighth day. It is equally curious to realise that the Hebrew word for oil is Gasmen, which is the root of the number 8, in Hebrew Chemoneh. To anoint a person, to pour oil on the head, Chemen, is to recognise officially that they have a messianic function which allows them to pass from the seventh stage described in Genesis to the eighth stage of the world and of history.
Interpretative Reading: Derash
We now have to interpret the information given by Peshat and the allusions discovered by Remez. We must look for their profound significance and define the distinctively Jewish experience of a universal reality, Light. This theme of light is written into universal reality long before the Maccabees wrote it into Jewish history, properly socalled, at the moment of their encounter with the Greek miracle of the light of reason. In fact we learn from the first chapter of the Torah that the first thing to be created was Light. According to the ritual we must kindle the light of Hanukkah from 25 Kislew, that is to say on the evening of 24 Kislew because the biblical day begins on theeve, at nightfall, as it is written "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5). Now the evening of 24 Kislew, that is to say 25 Kislew, is exactly the winter solstice, according to the rabbinic calendar. It is the time when nights are longest. At the end of the feast of Hanukkah, a week later, the days begin to lengthen and the nights become shorter. V is at the heart of the winter solstice, at the moment in the year when darkness is at its greatest, that we are told to kindle light to proclaim its triumph even at the heart of darkness.
Thus the rite has fundamental significance for the society which is supported and perpetuated by it. It is for the individual to learn to rediscover this significance by keeping the rite alive and making it a means by which to communicate the message it bears. Have not all the peoples of the world a ritual of light which helps them to triumph over darkness? Do not Christians celebrate the moment of Christ's birth on 24th December. in the middle of the night, eve of 25th December, Christmas Day? Is not the twenty-fifth word of the first chapter of the Torah 'or "light"? Is not the twenty-fifth stage of the Hebrews' journey throuh the desert after the coming-out of Egypt called Hashmonah, from which the Hasmoneans took their name? Rabbi Hanina adds "the sanctuary in the desert was completed on 25 Kislew" (Yalkut: Kings 184). The Prophet Haggai also recalls that the second Temple likewise was completed on 25 Kislew (2:15).
Thus we are open to the messianic interpretation of the deliverance, of the struggle of the "Sons of light against the Sons of darkness", as the Essenes put it; also of an active hope in the triumph of light when the world is at its darkness on the longest night of the winter solstice. At Hanukkah in the rite of the Jewish light, we pass judgement on the absence of a messianic dimension in the Hellenistic light. For there is light which does not know time, history, memory, the true human reality; and there is light which is concerned with enlightening the human person without distinction of race or social position because it is based on love of neighbour, whoever he/she may be. There is the light of knowledge, of objectivity, of efficacity and truth and there is the human light of love and understanding. Finally there is the light which enlightens the human person in order to know being itself, and there is the light which enlightens human beings so that they may become the persons they seek to be.
We can want to enlighten the universe by sacrificing those individuals whom the Torah calls "Lamps of the Lord". What is the source of light? Does it come from the heart of the responsible person or from the market place? From the inside or the outside? The Hasidim chose the light which is interior but the Pharisees did not reject the external light since they exposed themselves in war and armed resistance to save the inner light They liberated the land and burned the cruse of oil. In each of them "'Caesar" was enlightened by the miracle. Unfortunately, after them "Caesar" seized again his absolute independence and became a fanatical tyrant instead of the servant of the ethical life and the spirit.
Let us push the Midrash to its farthest limit where it touches on and introduces the Sod, the reading of the Kabbalists: What is the processus of the light, of the dynamic of the liberation, whether it concerns the outer or the inner? This is the question discussed by Hillel and Shammai in the Gemarah:
"Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah demands one light for a man and his household; the zealous kindle a light for each member of the household; and the extremely zealous, Beth Shammai maintain: on the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Beth Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased (until there are eight lights on the eighth day)."
Thus the disciples of Shammai and Hillel have different ideas about the miracle. The former think that the miracle happened this way: The priest-soldiers poured the oil into the seven branches of the candelabra and lit the wicks; in the morning they saw that an eighth of the oil had disappeared and not all the oil which had been poured out the previous evening. The nature of the oil changed and became eight times more powerful. Eight lights must therefore be lit on the first day as a sign that the miracle was known from the very first instant. The rest of the story, the days that follow only make explicit the event of the first day. Everything is contained in the beginning. What comes after is only by way of commentary, explanation and continued development of the first reality which contained in germ all its future life.
The School of Hillel, on the contrary, thinks of Moses and the burning bush: the flame burnt each night but did not consume the oil which remained at the same level each day. The wickburned without consuming the oil and each morning the miracle was repeated. That is why each evening we must kindle another light, from one to eight. This is a method of teaching but it also contains an idea about the transmission of light. It is a metaphysic of the light Is the miracle only in the gift and its reception? In that case it is enough to be patient, remembering that the nature of the gift is such that it will necessarily produce its effect in the end.
Thus we could very well follow Shammai and think that the messiah has already come and has given all that is necessary: that is the miracle or the mystery. For the present it is sufficient to extend to all the gift that he has made. But nothing will be radically new when humanity recognises him at the end of history. The difference will be a question of quantity not quality. What is to come is behind and the future is before. The school of Hillel, on the contrary, thinks that the miracle repeats itself at every moment, in the individual and in society. The light must be kindled and the other awakened at every moment, because to kindle it once never means that it is received definitively or totally. The miracle lies in the effort made so that the individual receives the light and enriches it by adding other lights not necessarily contained in the original. It is in the daily effort to love rather than in the love itself because nothing is ever there totally and everything is to be created each day.
To return to Peshat: the miracle was neither in the liberation of the land nor in the lighting of the Menorah, but above all in the daily effort to achieve peace, :justice and love in the Holy Land, thanks to recognised frontiers and the lighted menorah, The human person is made in the image of God in that he/she is creator and not only administrator of what has been given by the Creator.
If "there is nothing new under the sun" there are new things beyond the sun, say our rabbis. and the future is absolutely different from the past, thanks to the People of Light. Hanukkah is the time of the Jewish miracle, the time of discontinuity, of the abyss which separates human beings, of difference recognised and greeted. The light of the Maccabees is that of the supernatural model of the Law which dictates separation to the person and thus the duty of recognising the other as he/she is in their own being. It is the hope of the son who abandons the natural model and leans on the father in order to outstrip him and to add to the world and nature what the father was unable to establish there: his personal accomplishment. A light must be kindled for each member of the family: for the father, the mother, for each son and daughter.
Today then we must return to our pharisaic memory as it was defined by the Hasidim who followed the Maccabees. It is they who recall us to our national consciousness, but it is also they and they alone, who can remind us of the serious dangers inherent in ideas of territory, nation and state when they are not limited by the re-sponsibility of each one of us vis-a-vis others, those who suffer, the foreigner and the needy. It is also the Hasidim of Hanukkah who teach us how to open ourselves to other cultures and at the same time to gather therefrom the riches and the values that best help us to assume our own memory and our history and place them in the vanguard of human progress. The Greek miracle by taking place in Jewish consciousness and life and witnessing there to its value, meets there the Jewish miracle of the cruse of oil which feeds all light without ever losing any of its creative force.
• Armand Abecassis is professor of philosophy and sociology at the Universities of Strasbourg and Bordeaux. He is well known for his articles and lectures on subjects connected with Jewish tradition.