The War Within: Rabbi Avi Finegold contemplates the contemporary resonances of Hanukkah

NYTGAZA Israeli soldiers work in an artillery unit near the Gaza border near Netivot on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo by Avishag Shar-Yashuv)

Hanukkah. The temple defiled, the one jar of oil, enough to last one day, miraculously lasting eight days. We recreate this every year to celebrate this miracle and the victory over dark forces that it represented.  

Let me let you in on a little secret. I know religious scholars and even rabbis who don’t really believe it. Neither, it seems, did many people who were around at the time or soon after: the documents that describe what happened during the rebellion in 164 BCE don’t seem to discuss a miracle at all. Maccabees I and Maccabees II are contemporary accounts of the events and they don’t mention it. Neither does Josephus, who wrote famous accounts of Jewish history in the first century. In one of them, Antiquities of the Jews, he mentions that the festival was called “Lights,” but assumes that it was because “this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us, and that thence was the name given to that festival.” It is only in the Talmud, written hundreds of years later, that we see the story that we now know as central to our celebration first appear. 

If we set aside the miracle of the light and turn our attention to other parts of the story, what we find is a struggle over assimilation, a surprise military victory—itself likely near-miraculous—and a whole lot of open questions. What does it mean to celebrate our military might? Why did it take over 2,000 years for another decisive Jewish victory?

If those questions feel eerily pertinent, it’s because many people are asking them—not only about a long-ago war but about the one that’s being waged in Israel right now. 

Among the long list of the Things You Get Asked as a Rabbi, especially when Israel is embroiled in some sort of conflict: What is the Jewish view of war? Are there Jewish ethics about the conduct of war? What is the IDF allowed to do halachically? What are our obligations towards hostages? Towards enemies? Towards non-combatants?

I don’t claim to be an expert in this field and usually direct anyone who asks me about it to some articles on the topic—there has been no shortage of them written in the interim since the start of the war with Gaza. But when I do, I also point out that anyone interested can find backing, in the Torah and rabbinic literature, for a great many different—and sometimes conflicting—perspectives on these questions.  

Do you want to support an intervention that is peaceful and minimally harmful? You’ll find plenty of sources that remind us that no single life is more important than another, that we must provide for captives and ensure that we do violence only when we absolutely must. The Talmud discusses the great lengths a king needed to go to in order to engage in a war that wasn’t defensive—the definition and limits of which themselves come in for further careful analysis. The rabbis then detail how far one must go to avoid unnecessary destruction, pointing to the biblical passage that forbids tearing down fruit-bearing trees during a siege. People love to point out that the IDF even enshrined this in their training, including it in their doctrine of tohar haneshek, or purity of arms, instructing soldiers on how and when they are allowed to engage an enemy. 

Conversely: Do you want carnage and destruction to rain down on Gaza? You’ll be glad to see that the bible is full of bloody battles to capture the land of Israel and that the early Israelites were instructed to destroy entire tribes like Amalek. And let’s not forget that there’s an entire passage in the Torah that discusses women captured in battle, outlining the steps one must follow to be able to sleep with them. (In case this isn’t sufficiently clear: the Torah seems to be telling us that you can have sex with captive women.) In the early days of this war I heard Rabbi Berel Wein, a scholar with many historical works published in the Haredi world, claim that Hamas and Palestinians—yes, all of them—were the Amalekites, and that just as the Torah tells us that the latter must be eradicated in toto, including the women and children, so too must we eradicate the former.

You may, at this point, be protesting: that that’s not what is meant, the Rabbis dealt with all this in the Talmud and after. All of that may be true, but clearly there are Jews and Jewish leaders who believe it to this day—leaders like Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a Chabad rabbi known for his radical views on Israeli-Arab relations, who praised Baruch Goldstein for the Hebron Massacre, and counts Bezalel Smotrich and other right-wing Knesset members as followers.

The Torah can be used to prop up a very wide spectrum of opinions, and yet the acceptable spectrum of opinion has become increasingly narrow. You are either on the side that says, there is no such thing as proportionality: the Holocaust is happening again and Israel has to answer to no one but itself. Or you stand for peace at any and all costs—even at the expense of Jewish safety and the viability of a homeland in Israel.   

This polarization is a central problem and not just incidental to what is happening in the world. 

One of the things that seems to be entering into communal discourse with the current Gaza war is the policing of who gets to participate in it and who is deemed beyond the pale. This policing may have existed in the past more subtly, but has become much more aggressive lately. This is true across the spectrum of Jews and Jewish thinking. Our feeds are filled with people saying they will block you if you don’t have any compassion for dead Palestinians, or for living ones who have to endure so much hardship. We see others being declared persona non grata if they don’t believe that Palestinians are all members of Hamas who all want every Jew dead, not just from the river to the sea but across the globe. Then there are the endless arguments over which organization made which statement, what it did or did not include, and why.

This is not helping. At all.

 We have come a long way from the Maccabean way. We often forget, or were never taught, that they employed some fairly radical tactics in their path to victory.  Forcible circumcision of Jews who wanted to assimilate was not unheard of. Neither was killing Jews who did assimilate. These practices started to fade away in Talmudic times, making way for a more heterogeneous, inclusive understanding of the Jewish faith. 

Famously, the redactors of the Talmud included many diverging and sometimes contradictory legal opinions on the questions they discussed. This became a hallmark of Talmudic writing: not just a final verdict but the whole often messy discourse that preceded it was deemed important. The losing opinions were and are still seen to have value because the process matters as much as the outcome—and the holders of losing opinions were wise and arrived at their views through careful reasoning, just as the victors in legal debates did.  Even proponents of what seem to be heresies and radical assimilation are included in Jewish tradition, with rabbis looking for ways to keep them in the fold. 

And yet, today we find ourselves excluding and excluding and excluding. 

This will do lasting damage to our community and to our individual psyches. We are no longer asking ourselves why an individual has an opinion. We are no longer assuming the best in others. 

The Maccabees did this. But the Maccabees also did something novel during the rebellion, something that saved many lives. Jews were dying in attack after attack because the Seleucids had figured out that they wouldn’t fight back on the Sabbath. So the Maccabees ruled that preserving life was paramount—that it trumped the usual rules—and began fighting every day, including on the Sabbath. This is the source of our present-day discussions about pikuach nefesh: it’s why we are commanded to break almost every rule that usually binds us in order to save a life.  

This can be a powerful lesson for us, not just about the sanctity of life that Judaism espouses, but about our capacity to hold space for opinions that aren’t ours. While the Maccabees were ostensibly on the side of tradition, this approach to preserving life was by no means standard at the time. Maybe we too need to start by not disparaging ideas and opinions that we think are wrong. At the very least it may help us to understand where others are coming from and why they believe what they do. 

The Maccabean victory sowed the seeds for something much bigger and unintended as well: centuries after their rebellion, the temple that they had rededicated was ultimately destroyed by the Romans. The rabbis tell us that it was because of sinat chinam—baseless hatred of Jews towards other Jews. Even on purely historical grounds, they’re not wrong: it was quite possibly a lot of infighting between the various sects that prevented the Jews from mounting any credible defence against the Romans. Sinat chinam is something we can combat today simply by trying to understand each other better. You may still disagree with the gun-toter, but you might see that they have many fears, and that those fears humanize them. You might think that a gun isn’t a security blanket, but for them it is. And it might help you not hate them. You may think that every Palestinian agrees with Hamas, but speak to a Jew who regularly socializes or does business with Palestinians and you might see why they have sympathy for them. 

I have full faith in the IDF and their ability to unite Israelis together in battle. But I do not see that unity in our community more broadly. It can’t possibly be to our benefit to have bitter internal strife over who is more authentically Jewish, the right or the left. There are so few times we should exclude people from the community that we should never even think of it. 

To quote the Holy Bard of Montreal, Leonard Cohen:

Anyone who says

I’m not a Jew

Is not a Jew 

I’m very sorry

But this is final

I have no idea what might happen in Israel or Gaza, both over the short or the long term. A decisive military victory or loss might have unintended consequences that I will not try and guess at. But I do know that perhaps we should not be celebrating military victories the way we used to. In an article on written long before the current war, Malka Simkovich, a scholar of early Jewish history, points out that “…the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.” 

Let’s take a minute to remind ourselves of this, and maybe bring a little more light into this gloomy time.

Avi Finegold is the host of the weekly current affairs podcast Bonjour Chai.

This piece was originally published in The CJN’s quarterly print magazine.