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Jerusalem, History, & Hanukkah

Shabbat Vayeshev 5778 | December 9, 2017
I don’t want this to be a political moment for the Jewish community. No one needs to tell us where Israel’s capital city is located. It is a fact of history and our Jewish religious heritage that Jerusalem is the national capital of Israel and the spiritual center of the Jewish people. Through the centuries until today, other nations and peoples may also make claims on the city. Today’s demographic realities also matter. Nonetheless, sustained denial of Jerusalem’s central role in Jewish political and religious life is, as it always has been, dishonest and deceptive.
Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since King David established the first Jewish commonwealth and his son King Solomon built the First Temple. It was Israel’s capital again when the Maccabees reclaimed the Second Temple and established the second Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel, as we commemorate next week on Hanukkah. And it became so for the third time after Jewish sovereignty returned to the Land of Israel in 1948 and the State of Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital city in 1950.
In 1995, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly enacted “The Jerusalem Embassy Act” establishing bipartisan American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The law states as a matter of U.S. policy that America should recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and our embassy should be located there. So, when the President of the United States declares this week that our nation now does recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he affirms and fulfills a fact of policy and history we know to be correct.
Let’s focus on the significance of this recognition in the on-going story of Israel’s, and the Jewish people’s, history. Let’s try not to focus on the political turmoil or necessary policy debates this acknowledgment naturally stirs up.
Is it a strategic shift as part of a larger vision for the Middle East, as some observers suggest? Is the timing of this announcement a desire to change the subject and continue sewing political chaos, as other pundits believe? Time will tell, as will the short-lived or intense reactions we’ll see from others, including the Palestinians.
While all of this plays out and we corroborate the rightful place of Jerusalem in the life of our Jewish nation and identities, I don’t want this to be a political moment for the Jewish community. Let’s use our emotional energy for a different purpose.
Celebrating Jewish identity and Jewish memories in the larger world today is our most important challenge. It always has been. Assuring the historic place of Jerusalem in the hearts and minds of Jews, and not only in the political realm, is our real task. Which brings me to Hanukkah.
I learn something new about the complex history of Hanukkah every year. I find the events surrounding Hanukkah to be a fascinating study of the dynamics of Jewish identity and the posture Jews take in response to the larger world.
Think about what we celebrate. Recalling how in 164 B.C.E. the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple so they could worship God according to their priestly customs, on Hanukkah we celebrate Jewish religious identity.
The Books of Maccabees tell us that Hanukkah begins as a civil war among the Jews who are trying to define their identities as Greeks and Jews. A political alliance with the Greeks brings the Greco-Syrian governor of Jerusalem, Antiochus, to prohibit Jewish religious practice and desecrate the Temple.
After their victory, the Hasmonean priests, who sought to limit their assimilation into Greek culture and fought to defend Torah, become the rulers in Jerusalem. They establish the Second Jewish commonwealth, the only Jewish government in the land of Israel from the days of King David until the modern State of Israel.
The First Book of Maccabees was composed perhaps a generation after the events it describes. In it we read, “Judah and his brothers, and the whole congregation of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness at the same season each year, for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev.”
Next, we read the Greek population around them who “heard that the altar had been rebuilt and the Temple rededicated,” grew angry and “determined to wipe out all those descendants of Jacob who lived among them.”
War ensued for twenty years. Fighting to save his life and his family’s rule, Judah appealed to Rome, an enemy of the Greeks. Rome recognized Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem for a time, took on the battle against the Greek leaders, known as Seleucids. This was a difficult period during which Judah lost his life and Jerusalem fell. Eventually, the Hasmonean descendants of Judah came to power with Rome’s assistance. Gradually, the Seleucid state broke up.
In the context of this history, here’s my new awareness for this year. As historian Martin Goodman explains, the Maccabees, the family of Hasmonean priests at the center of the Hanukkah story, “saw themselves as the righteous champions” of Jewish tradition as they practiced it in their day. Over time, however, their descendants were not without opponents among Jews who had reasons to doubt the authenticity of their authority.
Hanukkah began as a celebration of the Maccabee’s rededication of the Second Temple in 164 B.C.E. Decades later, Hanukkah “also provided an opportunity for all citizens of the Jewish state to demonstrate their loyalty in public” by kindling and publicly displaying lights for all to see.
It seems that as the memory of the Temple re-dedication event waned among the population, marking the days of Hanukkah became a celebration of national independence and allegiance to the Hasmonean state. For me, this is useful information to help answer a question about Hanukkah I ask every year.
If the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in 164 B.C.E. and then 234 years later the Romans destroyed that same Second Temple in the year 70 C.E., we have to ask. How do we celebrate the rededication of a destroyed Temple?
Some historians believe the Jews stopped celebrating Hanukkah. Others maintain some form of Hanukkah continued through the ages as a festival of lights. I think that’s probably true for those Jews who saw Hanukkah as a holiday of hope and memory. Remembering the Hasmonean’s victories and defeats while hoping for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Through the generations, Hanukkah honors less the memory of a destroyed Temple and more sustains loyalty to the memory of a Jewish state ruled from Jerusalem.
From 164 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. we move forward to 220 C.E to learn this rule in the Mishnah. Individuals are liable for fires kindled by a spark from their candle. “Rabbi Yehudah says, ‘If it was a Hanukkah light, an individual is exempt.” Rabbi Yehudah believes that the danger of naked flames on the street is outweighed by the religious duty to shine publicly a light of hope in God.
In a span of 385 years, Hanukkah morphs from a Temple rededication event to a celebration of Jewish loyalty and spiritual longing.
By the way, Jewish tradition rules against Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura, a 15th-century Italian rabbi comments, “a person is obligated to sit and protect the light of Hanukkah while it is burning.”
I don’t want the President’s decision about Jerusalem to be a political moment for the Jewish community. As symbolically and historically important as the location of Israel’s capital is, protecting the light of Hanukkah, which means sustaining a community of people who appreciate the Jewish meanings symbolized by the City of Jerusalem, a community loyal to Jewish history and inspired by Jewish hopes, is what must command our attention today.
Commemorating Hanukkah we honor the memory and reality of independent Jewish sovereignty and we honor our Jewish religious identities in the larger world. These are our reasons for joyous celebration at this season.
© 2017 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784