12/23/2008

II: The Chareidi Chanukah – Am le-Vadad Yishkon

Last week, my daughter’s chareidi school had a pre-Chanukah party in which the girls performed a number of songs on the holiday theme (or so I was told by my wife, who was allowed to attend; as a man, I was not). The songs were well known selections such as “Baruch Elokeinu she-beranu le-khvodo…” and “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu”. The themes of these songs was Jewish isolation and separatism.

I recently read several articles by Dr. Benjamin Brown, including “Rabbi E.M. Shach: Admiration of Spirit, Critique of Nationalism, and Political Involvement”. The thesis of the article is that this type of separatism was a pillar of R’ Shach’s worldview and politics.

Chanukah, in this way of thinking, celebrates the maintenance of the purity of the Jewish/ Torah way of life in the face of prevailing culture. As opposed to the Zionist celebration, which focuses on the external enemy of the Chanukah story, the Chareidi narrative highlights the internal enemies, the Hellenizing Jews, as the primary antagonists (a point which I satirized with an alternative story of the origin of the custom of spinning the dreidl here).

Many of the themes of the holiday lend themselves easily to this approach – small lights in the face of overwhelming darkness, untouched flasks of pure oil, an obligation of the entire household as one, the idea of being surrounded by mitzvot, and the notable midrash that appears in Rashi on the leyning for the last day of Chanukah – “shelcha gedolah mi-shelahem, she-atah meitiv u-madlik et ha-neitrot” (“yours is superior to theirs, for you set up and light the candles”).

In truth, the themes of particularism and universalism have been in tension within Judaism for a very long time – even before the Chanukah story. I do not believe that it is possible to resolve the question of whether Judaism in universal or particularist in favor of one approach or the other. There is no doubt, though, that different groups of Jews have adopted attitudes all along the spectrum. The Chareidi approach strongly tends toward the particularist end of the spectrum. Like the Zionist celebration, this approach picks up on the elements of Chanukah that corroborate its fundamental narrative of radical cultrural/ religious isolationism.

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