How much God do we need?

by | Dec 1, 2017 | Torah Thought

Every Jewish child grows up hearing, at Hanukkah time, the story of “the miracle of the oil,” how one day’s supply of consecrated oil lasted eight days as the Temple was rededicated. It’s explained as the reason Hanukkah lasts eight days and why we eat foods fried in oil during the holiday. But is the story an unnecessary overlay?

Hanukkah, the only widely known Jewish holiday that is rooted in antiquity, but not associated with specific instructions or a backstory found in the Hebrew Bible, is based on the victory of the Hasmoneans (Maccabees), a tribe of Jewish guerrilla fighters, over the much larger Syrian-Greek forces of King Antiochus IV. The story is recounted in the post-biblical Books of Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha. The Greek king was trying to stamp out Judaism as a faith by desecrating its holy places and outlawing its customs and rituals, but the forces led by Judas Maccabaeus prevailed.

God is not absent as an actor in the story of the Maccabees (as God largely is in the biblical Book of Ruth and completely in the Book of Esther); God is credited with helping bring the Maccabees to victory and with punishing Antiochus and other enemies of the Jews. But God plays a supervisory role, not an active one, in the cleanup of the Temple and the subsequent celebration, which in Second Maccabees lasts eight days as an homage to the holiday of Sukkot (II Maccabees 10:6). First and Second Maccabees portray God as very much an ish milchamah, the “man of war” extolled in the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:3).

But God as warrior and avenger wasn’t enough for the sages of the early Common Era. They needed God’s role in Hanukkah to contain a more mythological and spiritual (not to mention nonlethal) element, so they came up with the miracle of the oil, describing, in Talmud Shabbat 21b, the little cruse of sanctified olive oil that kept the Temple’s menorah lighted for eight days instead of one, until the Jews could make more pure oil and have it blessed. Had it not been for this bit of Godly magic, recorded around the fifth century C.E., we’d be waving palm fronds at Hanukkah instead of eating latkes and jelly doughnuts.

Why did the rabbis need to add an extra supernatural aspect to a story that already contained plenty of homage to God? I’m not a big fan of the Hasmoneans: They were zealots for whom there was only one way to be Jewish, and Jews who didn’t follow their ways were subject to their violence, plus they were later responsible for the one episode of a people’s forced conversion to Judaism. But they did save the Jewish faith in their part of the world (today’s Israel), and the God they revered was the God they needed—a virtual general who gave the Jewish fighters and their leaders the will and strength to vanquish a powerful and dangerous enemy. Wasn’t that miracle enough?

I like latkes as much as the next person, but sometimes I think we do ourselves and our kids a disservice by lubricating the Hanukkah story with olive oil. Maybe the rabbis didn’t want a repeat of Purim, which celebrates a story in which God has no role at all and Jews go out and slaughter thousands of Persians without need or reason. But by making the miracle the focal point of the Hanukkah celebration, we detract from two important aspects of the tale: that God’s presence was on the scene anyway, and that it was human effort that restored the Temple and the surrounding area to a state of fitness for praise of God. By emphasizing the partnership between God and human beings, we can bring an extra level of joy to the Festival of Lights.

—Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Tidewater Chavurah