From Pillar of Defense to Hanukkah: Why Jews Mustn’t Glorify Military Might

Why isn’t Hanukkah in the Torah? Perhaps because the sages did not condone military prowess divorced from God’s presence.

Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
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Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

We’ve spent the last eight days singing Hanukkah songs and celebrating this Festival of Light, but amid all this enjoyment, we may have forgotten the darker reasons for why the story of Hanukkah was left out of the Torah.

Jewish tradition teaches us that Hanukkah’s absence from the bible may have had to do with the late dating of the story, which takes place several hundred years after the Tanakh’s closing story of Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet, Hanukkah’s exclusion from the Torah by our rabbis was in all likelihood much more deliberate. Our sages of blessed memory felt uncomfortable by the notion of a biblical book that celebrated military conflict uncoupled by faith, when they felt that the Jewish people’s true salvation in Hanukkah should have been drawn from God. The rabbis viewed the later corruption of the Maccabees’ descendants, the Hasmonean rulers and High Priests, as validation of their shared perspective that military prowess divorced from God’s presence could never serve as the foundation for a religious holiday. And since the Books of the Maccabees focused mainly on the battles of the political sphere and war, rather than a triumph of faith, they didn’t want it included.

It was not that the victory or that the holiday of Hanukkah was unimportant: the rabbis just weren’t entirely comfortable condoning this approach toward the holiness that our Torah espouses. That is, they may not have supported Hanukkah’s worldview.

Instead, our sages took a different course: they chose to reinvent Hanukkah entirely from scratch. In the Talmud, our sages recall legends espousing God’s central role in the miraculous rededication of the Temple. They ignored any number of epic military battles for the Shabbat Hanukkah Haftarah, and instead chose one with the words of Zechariah, in which the prophet espouses that true power lies “not by might, nor by power, but by my [God’s] spirit.” Today, we even recite a blessing over lighting the Hanukkah candles that we call a “mitzvah commanded to us by God,” even though there is minimal biblical basis for a God-given commandment to light Hanukkah candles.

Thanks to our sages’ creativity, the Hanukkah we observe today is most definitively a religious holiday.

Having arrived at Hanukkah following Operation Pillar of Defense, I believe the words of our sages still speak to the nature of modern military conflict. Like myself, I believe our sages would be proud to be associated with the fine, dedicated, brave modern Maccabees of the Israel Defense Forces, who protect and defend our Jewish state. Yet, as the State of Israel and the Jewish people move forward proudly from that operation into Hanukkah, I believe our sages might also take care to remind us that triumph in battle can never be a true Jewish path toward holiness. Instead, they would probably remind us that the very Hebrew name of the operation, Amud Anan – which refers to God’s protective “pillar of cloud” as He led the Jewish people out of Egypt through the desert — reminds us that a Jew must ultimately never draw his or her strength from might or power, but from God’s spirit.

Hanukkah reminds us that in ancient times, armies fought brutal campaigns and crusades falsely in the name of God and glory. But, as Jews, we only fight as a last resort because it is necessary to live, and so that we may spend our days drawing closer to God in peace.

For Jews, our true path toward holiness must be drawn from the wellsprings of our faith. We may celebrate victory but must never glorify military might. Instead, we must long for the day when all of the peoples of the world will finally put down their arms and live in peace. When that happens, it will be our story in place of the Maccabees’ that shall surely be worthy of being included as a biblical book.

Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.

An artillery unit firing at Gaza. One war for men, another for women. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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