Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Celebration of Hanukkah: "Rededicating" the Original Winter Festival

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8A) tell an incredible story about the experiences of Adam, the first man, immediately following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The sin and exile of Adam and Eve took place in late Autumn, just around the time of year when the days start to become progressively shorter, the sun rising later and setting earlier on a daily basis. Adam took note of this gradual, worrisome change and assumed that it was a further sign of Divine punishment, the death that had been decreed upon him for violating God’s command. Eventually, he reasoned, there would be no more daylight at all, and plants, animals, and human beings would perish forever. 

Fearing for his life, Adam spent eight days in prayer and repentance, beseeching the Almighty for a second chance. Then the winter solstice arrived, and the days began to lengthen again, little by little. When Adam observed this, he realized that the systematic variation in the amount of daylight was nothing to be scared of. It was simply part of the incredible, breathtaking, self-renewing natural order that Hashem had designed in His infinite wisdom. Thrilled and comforted by this new insight, Adam celebrated his discovery for eight days. 

The following year, Adam established a sixteen day holiday - eight days prior to the solstice and eight days afterwards - to commemorate what he now understood to be the predictable pattern of the seasons. Although his intent was to honor Hashem with this festival, it was later corrupted into two pagan holidays (Saturnalia and Kalenda) that were observed by the Romans consecutively from December 17th through January 1st. These dates sound familiar to us because they coincide with what we now know as the “holiday season”, an institution derived from pagan Rome that was adopted by later religious traditions and is perpetuated until today.

It is noteworthy that our Torah includes no winter holidays whatsoever. The Yamim Tovim of the Torah are all observed in the Spring, Summer and Fall. One might argue that this is due to the fact that the holidays of the Torah are all linked to the annual process of harvesting and gathering produce from the fields, a process that concludes before the advent of the colder months. However, it seems that there is a deeper and more fundamental reason why the Torah carefully avoided establishing any festivals in the wintertime.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Torah’s rejection of winter holidays is directly related, in some way, to the fact that idolatrous religion embraces them. After all, one of the essential objectives of the Torah is the uprooting of idolatry and the elimination of any vestige of pagan ideology from civilization. But what is it about the worship of idols and its attendant rituals that the Torah regards as especially abhorrent? Why is the Torah so passionately opposed to the religious fervor of well-meaning, sincere idolaters? And what does the pagan mind find so compelling in the idea of a winter festival?

The primary motivation behind idolatrous religion is the emotion of fear - fear of hunger, fear of sickness, and, most importantly, fear of death. Ancient mankind was driven to invent a pantheon of gods that they imagined would provide them with security against the existential threats posed to them by the unpredictable forces of nature and by their own frailty and mortality. Typically, the mythology of these pagan religious traditions included rich, vivid descriptions of the afterlife and elaborate rituals designed to ensure that one would eventually obtain eternal life. 

The approach of winter was undoubtedly a frightening experience for humans in antiquity. Days shortened, temperatures dropped, trees lost their leaves and fruits, animals hibernated, food was scarce, and illness was rampant. Even the wise Adam found a reason to be anxious as Autumn came to a close, but his discovery of the consistency and beauty in the Divinely ordained patterns of nature led him away from raw terror to a greater, more satisfying recognition of God and His handiwork.

The fear that gripped ignorant pagans during this time, by contrast, inspired them to turn even further away from the realities of nature and to seek superficial reassurance from their superstitions, believing that the “magic” of their rituals would ward off the danger posed by the cold indifference of winter. The rituals centered around chasing away the darkness, cold and death of winter, and therefore entailed kindling lights and bringing evergreen trees into the home (as if to say that, just as evergreen trees survive the winter fully intact, so should we.) 

This explains why the most prominent and emotionally intense celebrations on the pagan calendar took place in the wintertime. The more frightened the idolaters were, the more fervent they became in their religious engagement.

The Torah promotes religion based not on fear and anxiety, but on love of wisdom, justice and truth. Therefore, despite the fact that Adam established a holiday at the end of December to honor God and His magnificent creation, the Torah did not incorporate it into the Jewish calendar, for fear that it would feed into the idolatrous and superstitious impulses of people who were scared of winter temperatures and winter darkness.

Similarly, because the pagan mind was deeply preoccupied with its fear of death and desire for immortality, idolatrous religion and ritual was obsessively focused on preventing death and, where that failed, guaranteeing eternity. By contrast, although Judaism fully subscribes to a belief in the afterlife for those who pass away, it does not write one word about the World to Come, forbids kohanim (“priests”) from any involvement with the dead, and prohibits a person who has contact with a corpse from entering the Temple or offering sacrifices, assigning him the severest form of ritual impurity. 

Without a doubt, the goal of the Torah here was to differentiate itself from the fear-driven superstitions of idol worship. The Torah does not want us to run away from our fears and into the embrace of religion. It wants us to serve God, seek knowledge and pursue mitzvah observance out of love, for their own sake. 

If the Torah was so careful to avoid the establishment of any winter celebrations, why did the Rabbis advocate the institution of Hanukkah, which practically coincides with the “holiday season” of the gentiles? Moreover, how could they allow it to become a “festival of lights”, seemingly an endorsement of the pagan overtones of this time of year?

It seems that our Sages understood that the very nature of the miracles of Hanukkah provided them a golden opportunity to reclaim the original “winter festival”, initiated by Adam and Eve, that had been hijacked and corrupted by the vile forces of paganism. This is because the events commemorated on Hanukkah embodied the ultimate triumph of genuine faith, wisdom and truth against paganism, moral bankruptcy and primitive superstition.

The Syrian Greeks sought to impose their materialist, idolatrous worldview upon all of their subjects and to rid the earth of the contrary influence of monotheism, justice, and Torah that was championed by the Jews. The victory of a small, untrained group of kohanim over the mighty army of the Syrian Greeks, followed by the rededication of the Temple and the reestablishment of Jewish religious life in the land of Israel against all odds, was really a victory for Divine Wisdom and truth over primitive paganism, ignorance and superstition. The lights of the menorah, rather than magically “warding off” demonic forces of death and destruction, reflected the eternally enlightening power of Torah and wisdom that no human regime, however evil, determined or unscrupulous, will ever manage to extinguish or eliminate. 

Because the Hanukkah celebration was in its essence a celebration of the defeat of idolatry and the primacy of Torah truth, the Sages had no fear that this “winter festival” would ever be corrupted or distorted by the insidious influence of paganism. On the contrary, Hanukkah became the ideal occasion for us to acknowledge the real light that illuminates and warms us even amidst the cold darkness of the winter months - the light of Hashem’s wisdom, Hashem’s Torah and Hashem’s commandments.