Hanukkah: Inner Freedom

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Yeshiva University philosopher and scholar, once pointed out that contrary to popular American interpretations, Hanukkah could not really be a holiday celebrating the political freedom of our pre-millennial ancestors from their Seleucid overlords, because that freedom wasn’t very long-lasting. Rome arrived in the land of Israel only about a hundred years later and the laws of Hanukkah as given in the Talmud come from a time when political independence was already a fading memory under Roman rule.

To use Soloveitchik’s analogy- it makes sense to celebrate the Fourth of July as long as America stands strong and free. Yet if – God forbid- the USA somehow fell or was taken over by another political entity, could we imagine that fireworks and the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth would mean the same thing as they do today?

So for Soloveitchik, Hanukkah could not celebrate political freedom, because the freedom obtained by the Maccabees was short-lived and irrelevant to the lives of most Jews in history. Therefore- according to this understanding- Hanukkah is not about yamim ha-hem– “their days”- but zman ha-zeh, “our time.” That is, the political and military achievements of the Maccabees are incidental to the reason we re-enact the core event of the story, which is lighting the Hanukkiah, representative of the Menorah [lampstand] of the ancient Temple. Re-creating the illumination of the ancient Temple- the place of the Shechinah, or Divine Presence- is not dependent on political circumstances. It is only dependent on our desire to make our homes places of the Sacred, dwelling-places of hope, faith, reverence and spiritual renewal.

Wishing you and yours a Hanukkah of light and love,

Rabbi Neal

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