by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I am wary of miracles. Not that amazing, unpredictable, and seemingly miraculous things do not happen all the time. But too often they don’t happen when they should, and I have heard the term miracle applied to events that have perfectly logical explanations. Or to religious figures whom I consider dishonest, corrupt, or mercenary.
Like predicting and expecting the Messiah to come (as opposed to hoping). For two thousand years he (and why not she ) has not appeared. As the Talmud says
“May the bones rot of who predict when the Messiah will be come, because if he does not come, then people will lose hope altogether” (Sanhedrin 97b).
Although I have to admit that despite all the predictions of dates and disappointments of certain religious sects I could name, nothing seems to have diluted their religious enthusiasm.
But let us leave the controversy of Messianism for another time. It is Chanukah. Both Chanukah and Purim are post-Biblical. Chanukah is emblematic of the trials in the post-Biblical Land of Israel. And Purim of course is for the Diaspora, specifically Persia. On both, we recite the Al Hanisim (For the Miracles) prayer that is added to the daily Amidah prayers three times a day and four on Shabbat.
Here is an abbreviated text of the prayer.
“We thank God for all the miracles, reliefs, and amazing things that You have done for our forefathers, in the past at this time of the year (and on Chanukah ) in the days of Matityahu, son of Yohanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from Your teaching— You, in Your abundant mercy, stood by them in their time of distress, You defended their cause, You judged their grievances, You avenged them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous. And for Your people, Israel, You have performed great deliverance and redemption like this very day.”
I always pause over the phrase “the few overcoming the many.” It is interesting that this prayer was added at a time of Roman persecution and recited throughout the painful eras of the Christian and Muslim empires. What were they thinking as they recited it then? That God who once resurrected them and returned them to their land would do it again? Did those suffering in Nazi Camps think that God would save them? They certainly prayed so and indeed some were. Or were they somehow expressing an indomitable faith and determination? Was prayer therapeutic or comforting? Did they think that we as people would survive no matter what they had to suffer? Did that make sense? Logically not. And yet year after year we repeat this theme and we pray, that there will be miracles even if we know it is up to us to make them happen.
Despite its popularity, Chanukah remains as divisive today as it was then. Some want to glorify the military victories. The few overcome the many. Some reject militarism altogether and some celebrate the survival of faith. Israel celebrates the Maccabiah Games in imitation of the pagan Greek Olympics. Some of our people identify with this symbol Western culture that it represents. Some of us will light candles for eight days, others will burn olive oil. Some like to play with a dreidel, some gamble with cards, and others indulge in donuts of various culinary variations. I cannot think of a festival that accommodates all these conflicting ideologies and attitudes. It is the most inclusive of Jewish of festivals precisely because it can resonate in different ways with all the internal divisions that normally tear us apart. We can all celebrate each it in our own way.
We can identify with the external and common threats. We witness the changes in ideology and intellectual and national dogmas that try to demean us. We can marvel at our defeating the odds. And we can come to realize even if belatedly the threats that are festering to explode and attack us. Sometimes we retreat into the ghettos of our minds. Sometimes we appease and think that staying quiet will save us. And fail to take those who wish us harm seriously enough. And when reality strikes, we realize we are never completely at home in exile. And sometimes, and this is that time, we realize we have to stand our ground, stand proud, and fight for our right to be different. We Jews are of different colors, minds, and loyalties but we all share a common fate.
And yet the zealotry of the Maccabees can also remind us of our own extremists today who threaten our equilibrium. The term settlers has become in the minds of our enemies one of abuse. But it masks the differences between the very different groups who have settled on the West Bank. Not all settlers are violent. Most are pragmatists finding better living conditions than other more crowded zones. Some are secular. Others are religious in all the different ideological religious cliques and sects. Some are idealists seeing a historical mission. And others are violent fanatics. Just as the Maccabean were divided between idealists and bullies.
I fear the latter-day Maccabees who give Judaism a bad name with their extra-judicial violence, revenge, and collective punishment. Who justify their violence by pointing out the hatred of the other side. Two wrongs do not make a right and they provide excuses for our enemies and endanger the safety of the peaceful majority. They smear the rest of us by taking the law into their own hand.
Al Hanisim is predicated on our being better not as bad. We can read Al Hanisim and give it our personal emphasis. But we should remember that the blessings that follow it in our prayers call for peace and describe us as just, pure, and good. We must not let hatred fester and eat away at us however despicable our enemies behave. I do not believe in turning the other cheek but neither do I believe in abandoning our spiritual heritage. Al Hanisim is a paeon to God, to us, and to our ideals.
Happy Chanukah and may the lights drive away the darkness.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.