Turning Chanukah on its Head


avrohom gordimerBy Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

Tisha B’Av is the most ideologically challenging day on the Jewish calendar for secular Zionists (and even for some religious Zionists). Messages of the Jewish People being in a current state of Galus (Exile), imagery of Churban (Destruction) persisting in the Land of Israel and its capital city, and affirmations of our nation still being unredeemed cause great discomfort for those who feel that the Geulah (Redemption) has been basically completed, or that its need has been obviated, with the declaration of Israeli statehood.

In a similar vein, Chanukah is quite a challenge to Jews who favor assimilation. For most secular Jews, Chanukah’s message perforce must be modified to be one of general freedom, personal and cultural expression, tolerance, openness, egalitarianism, Jewish might and bravery, and yes, “Jewish Christmas”.  At the recent White House Chanukah Party, Reform Rabbi Susan Talve explained what she thinks Chanukah represents: “I stand here to light these lights that say no to the darkness of islamophobia, and homophobia and transphobia and racism and anti-Semitism and all the other isms that dare to dim our hope.” The values of the Chashmona’im (Maccabees), who fought even against their fellow Jews (the Hellenists) to preserve Torah and Mitzvos and who saw the encroachment of Greek culture as an existential threat to Judaism, get totally lost and buried, as they are not consistent with the values of assimilated Jewry. It is very sad, as the true meaning of Chanukah is replaced by an ethos which diametrically contradicts the core significance of the holiday.

Unfortunately, the Tisha B’Av/Chanukah dilemma is not only faced by Jews who are unaware of the great teachings of authentic Judaism and who do not relate to traditional Jewish practices and values. On the contrary, the dilemma is faced even more acutely by Orthodox Jews who have adopted the mindset of secular society. In fact, the problem is magnified far greater in such cases, as Jews who claim fealty to Torah and its ideals while at the same time embracing the doctrines of cosmopolitan society cannot easily accept the Chanukah messages of rejection of secular values, of proclaiming Jewish chosenness, and of purification from the spiritual contamination of a respected and advanced non-Jewish culture. For such Jews, Chanukah is a downright conflict, and it compels creative solutions that distance it from perceptions of parochialism and the spurning of secular enlightenment. For such Jews, Chanukah must be redefined.

Last Chanukah, we read of rabbis on the edge of Orthodoxy associating Chanukah with the legalization of gay marriage, with openness to the values of the outside world, and with the celebration of Jewish culture, such as “food, literature, art, music, dance…”

The angst precipitated by the true meaning of Chanukah among some rabbis in this category has led this year to even more creative reinterpretations of the Chanukah message. One such new reinterpretation, penned by an Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva, goes like this:

The Greek philosophy that Alexander (the Great) brought to Jerusalem became part of the Torah. What Shimon (Ha-Tzaddik, who met Alexander when the latter came to Yerushalayim) was able to do was to encounter the world and take the best that it has to offer and appropriate those ideas into Jewish life.

Chanukah celebrates the ability to engage the world and find aspects of modernity that are meant to be incorporated into our lives…

This year, when you light your Chanukah candles and share the story of the cruise (sic) of oil with your family, take a moment to thank God for the blessings and challenges of modernity… May we be granted the wisdom of Shimon Ha-Tzaddik to understand which values of the 21st century are meant to be part of the Torah.

What is the basis for the radical idea that Chanukah celebrates the incorporation of secular values into Torah life? The writer of this d’var Torah claims to derive it from (his reading of) the Rambam:

The Mishnah in Avos (1:2) states: He (Shimon Ha-Tzaddik) used to say, “Upon three things does the world rest: upon Torah, upon Avodah (Divine Service), and upon acts of kindness.” The Rambam explains the phrase “Torah” as “המדע, שהיא התורה” (“Mada, which is Torah”). The word “Mada” means knowledge, and the Rambam most likely refers here to knowledge of God, for he likewise uses the word “Mada” in his Mishneh Torah in reference to Divine knowledge, entitling the first volume thereof “Sefer Ha-Mada” – “Book of Divine Knowledge”.

However, the Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva shockingly renders the Rambam’s phrase “המדע, שהיא התורה” as “Greek philosophy” (!). This rosh yeshiva concludes that Shimon Ha-Tzaddik was declaring that one should incorporate “the philosophy of the day”/”Greek philosophy” into Torah:

Rambam says that when Shimon Ha-Tzaddik uses the word “Torah” what he means is “המדע” – Greek philosophy. For Rambam the Arabic term “el-alam” (“Ha-Mada” in Hebrew) refers to the philosophy of his day.

In Rambam’s read Shimon may have defeated Alexander, but the Greek philosophy that Alexander brought to Jerusalem became part of the Torah. What Shimon was able to do was to encounter the world and take the best that it has to offer and appropriate those ideas into Jewish life.

Readers are encouraged to consult the complete d’var Torah in order to see the progression of ideas, but it is undeniable that this approach and reinterpretation literally turn Chanukah on its head, transforming it from a commemoration marking the preservation of authentic and unadulterated Judaism into a celebration of the adoption of secular values into Torah life and thought. It is chilling.

A few days before Chanukah, a group of prominent rabbis at the edge of Orthodoxy issued a sweeping proclamation, entitled Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity – To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians. The proclamation overturns the precedent rulings and policies of Torah authorities of the previous generations regarding interfaith dialogue. (Please read here for details of these rulings and policies.) But this new proclamation then goes much further:

As did Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi, we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies… Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal (sic) mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty, so that all humanity will call on His name and abominations will be removed from the earth… We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us: the ethical monotheism of Abraham; the relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who loves and cares for all of us; Jewish Sacred Scriptures; a belief in a binding tradition; and the values of life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace… Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption… We believe that G-d employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant. In imitating G-d, Jews and Christians must offer models of service, unconditional love and holiness. We are all created in G-d’s Holy Image, and Jews and Christians will remain dedicated to the Covenant by playing an active role together in redeeming the world.

The proclamation, for lack of better words, hijacks and severely distorts the words of the Rambam (Hil. Melachim 11:4 – uncensored edition) in order to fulfill its agenda; the same is true for the other sources invoked in the proclamation, which are drastically taken out of context and/or misrepresented.

While we must leave the issue of dialogue and cooperation with the Church to Orthodox organizations such as Agudath Israel, the OU and the RCA, who maintain good working relationships with Christian leadership and who adhere to the mandates of leading poskim (halachic decisors), and we do not in any way direct this discussion to our Christian friends, we must internally address the problem of rabbis breaking rank with the authoritative representatives of Orthodoxy and unilaterally changing the discourse in very material ways.

Catholic leadership was surprised by the extent to which the rabbis who signed the above proclamation affirmed Christianity, as we read in this article of December 8, the third day of Chanukah:

The statement has met with appreciation from Christian theologians, including Michael Peppard, a Fordham University theology professor. He noted on the blog of Commonweal, the Catholic journal, that while the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism — representing most American Jews — have long engaged in interfaith theological discussions, Orthodox Judaism has in the past found such dialogue problematic.

By calling Christianity “neither accident nor error,” Peppard says this Orthodox rabbinical statement is going further than a similar document titled “Dabru Emet,” signed by mostly by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in 2000.

It may be that “Orthodox Judaism is in the midst of a serious reckoning with the fundamental tenets of Christianity,” Peppard wrote. “This theologically compelling and provocative statement is quite a 50th anniversary present for Nostra Aetate.”

Several of the proclamation’s rabbinic signatories were then interviewed by the Jewish week, which reported:

In supporting the CJCUC statement, Rabbi Riskin and other signatories argued this week that the Christian Church of the 1960s is not the Christian Church of 2015, and that the bans on interfaith work issued by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (the leader of non-chasidic charedi Jewry) and by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (leader of Modern Orthodox Jews) do not apply.

“Everything in the statement is fully consonant with Jewish law,” Rabbi Eugene Korn, academic director of CJCUC, told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “Jews have real enemies today — but Christians are no longer among them. Both communities must defeat the same assaults on our faiths from radical secularism and intolerant religious extremism.”

As was noted in the aforementioned Arutz Sheva article, Rav Feinstein, Rav Soloveitchik, and the other halachic authorities who weighed in on this matter lived and were active for decades after the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate, and these preeminent rabbonim did not in any way retract their positions.

The question of objectivity of several of the signatories of the proclamation – which is the elephant in the room – cannot be ignored. One of the signatories, whose organization, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), issued the proclamation, produced the highly-controversial “Rabbi Jesus” video, which this signatory later claimed did not represent his views, alleging that his views were misrepresented in the video due to poor editing. This same rabbi retracted remarks he made previously that, “it’s critical that we resurrect God in this generation.” This rabbi’s organization is documented to receive handsome donations from several Christian ministries.

This Chanukah, rabbis who identify themselves as Orthodox have negated the message of the holiday and proffered a version of Judaism that is foreign. These rabbis have introduced cloudiness and obscurity into the lucid and pure vision of faith and Jewish identity that Chanukah celebrates and energizes.

Readers are highly encouraged to please listen to this shmuess of Rav Aharon Kahn, shlita, delivered on the third night of Chaukah at YU, in which the genuine values of Chanukah are robustly and dynamically elucidated and analyzed.

On Chanukah, we are charged to return to the core values of Torah and to remove from our worldview and personalities anything that conflicts with pure Torah principles and attitudes. Chanukah, as its Hebrew root implies, is a rededication to the genuine, untouched foundations of our Mesorah (Torah Tradition). The Tradition is not only comprised of technical laws and observances; rather, it encompasses the entire frame of reference, orientation and outlook of the Jew. (Please see here.)

We conclude with the timeless words of Rav Yosef B. Soloveithcik, zt”l, delivered during Chanukah 36 years ago:

Just as the Ner Tamid (Perpetual Flame) was the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah (Manifestation of the Divine Presence) in the Beis Ha-Mikdash, so, too, the Ner Chanukah (Chanukah Lamp or Flame) also serves as the symbol of Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among Jews all over the world. The Ner Chanukah, itself, embodies the Ner Tamid of the Mikdash. Thus, the purpose of the mitzvah of Pirsumei Nisa (Publicizing the Miracle), by Chanukah, is to demonstrate the presence of Giluy Shechinah (Revelation of the Divine Preence), through the lighting of the Ner Chanukah. The light of the Ner Chanukah is the medium of revelation of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews. In the same manner as the Ner Tamid tells the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah among the Jews in the Mikdash, so too, the Ner Chanukah states the story of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah in the present generation.

The main conflict between the Hellenists and the Jews centered around the concept of Bechiras Yisroel (Chosenness of the Jewish People). The Hellenists wanted the Jews to abandon their awareness of Bechiras Yisrael. The Hellenists, and later the Romans, hated the Jews because the Jews believed in Bechiras Yisroel. Thus, the function of Ner Chanukah is to remind us of the Hashra’as Ha-Shechinah…

The Shechinah addresses itself through the Ner Chanukah, and the Ner Chanukah demonstrates that the Shechinah resides among the Jews: “.עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל” (“The Western Lamp of the Menorah in the Beis Ha-Mikdash is testimony that the Divine Presence resides among the Jewish People.” – Shabbos 26b) This concept is the crux of the entire Torah. Thus, the Rambam used special language (explained earlier in this shiur – AG) with regard to Chanukah.

Furthermore, הנרות הללו קודש הם (“These lights are holy”) means that one should react to the Ner Chanukah in the same manner that Moses reacted to the fire of the Burning Bush, where he immediately sought to investigate that strange phenomena: “.אסורה ואראה את המראה הגדול הזה” – “I will detour and investigate this strange sight.” Our reaction to the Ner Chanukah should be similar to that. One must investigate and analyze the purpose of the Ner Chanukah. The Rambam, thus, repeatedly emphasizes that Ner Chanukah is not to be taken as simply another mitzvah d’Rabbanan (rabbinical enactment), but is to be regarded as one of the fundamental Mitzvos which symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jews…

Anyone who knows the story of Chanukah knows also that, following the Hasmonean victory, the entire K’nesses Yisroel (Congregation of the Jewish People) underwent a vast transformation vis a vis their relationship with God and Torah. Prior to this victory, the relationship between God and the Jews was tenuous. Hundreds of thousands of Jews became Hellenists, to such an extent that they defiled the Temple and the like. After the Hasmonean victory, and after the miracle of the Menorah, things changed drastically. Jews began to believe in Bechiras Yisroel, observe the Mitzvos, etc.

The gezeiros (enactments) of the Beis Din Shel Chashmona’im (Hasmonean Rabbinical Court), relating to arayos (illicit relationships) and intermarriage, were instituted in reaction to the large number of intermarriages and assimilation. Intermarriage was so common that even the son of Yehoshua the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) married the non-Jewish daughter of the leader of the Kusim (Kutheans)…

Prior to the victory, many Jews refused to observe even the most basic Mitzvos. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 46A)  relates the story of one who rode his horse on Shabbos. The Beis Din Shel Chashmona’im punished him severely. The miracle of Chanukah changed this entire mood, and the Jews abandoned Hellenism for the most part and adhered to the laws of the Torah. It is for this reason that Chanukah is regarded as a great holiday.

The Pirsumei Nisa on Chanukah is thus not so much directed at the miracle of the candles, but is to demonstrate that the Jews returned from the brink of total assimilation and adopted the Torah, and reestablished their unique relationship with God. This reconfirmation can, and will, occur again through Teshuva.

This article first appeared at Cross Currents.

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  1. Thank you Rabbi Gordimer for your excellent piece. Makes one wonder why, according to ‘Opendoxy’ (my term to differentiate from Orthodoxy), did they need the pach of pure shemen? In the name of openness and inclusiveness they could have used the oil that was defiled!

  2. Thank you Rabbi Gordimer!! I always look forward to read your articles and share your solid hashkafos with my family. You are helping me ensure the genuine-orthodox continuity of my children. I cannot express enough my appreciation for what you do. Thank you again and please keep it coming!

  3. #2

    The author is a very busy man,and could have convinced himself to avoid taking up the cudgels. He is one righteous heros of our epoch.He is a made of the same stuff as the Chasmonayim were .

    When the books about our era will be written ,his name will appear often writ large.