Chanukah and Zionism

The following letter will discuss the deeper meaning of Chanukah, and it is an expanded version of a previous Chanukah letter. This letter will also review some teachings and insights which remind us of the deeper meaning of Zion.
Is Chanukah a “Zionist” Festival?
Dear Friends,
The question of whether Chanukah is a “Zionist” festival cannot be discussed without explaining the term “Zionism” – a new term which began to be used by the World Zionist Organization which was founded in 1897. This term was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the “Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. The new term “Zionism” which was used by this organization does not just mean love of Zion, as many of the Jewish opponents of the W.Z.O. were Torah-committed men and women with an intense love of Zion, and as we discussed in this series, they were involved in the renewal of Jewish life in Zion even before the W.Z.O. was founded.
To understand the definition of “Zionism” according to the W.Z.O., we will begin with the following resolution which this organization adopted in 1911: “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” As we shall discuss in this letter, the resolution used the term “religion” to refer to Judaism – the path and outlook of the Torah. This resolution was a public rejection of the following message of Moshe and other Prophets of Israel: The Land of Zion was given to us for the fulfillment of the Torah, the Divine Teaching. For example, Moshe proclaimed to our people: “See, I have taught you statutes and social laws which Hashem, my God, has commanded me, so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the Land” (Deuteronomy 4:5).
As we discussed in previous letters, most of the leaders of the W.Z.O. sought to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. These leaders stressed that our national homeland was Zion; thus, they felt that our nation has no purpose without regaining a national home in Zion. They therefore used the term “Zionism” to refer to the secular and nationalistic ideology of their organization; moreover, they established schools and educational programs to promote this ideology. An example of their view can be found in the writings of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading thinker and activist within the World Zionist Organization who also served as the editor of its official organ, Die Welt. Regarding the goal of the modern Zionist movement, Klatzkin wrote:
 “In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (Cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg)
Regarding the Zionist ideology, Klatzkin added, “Its real beginning is The Jewish State (a pamphlet written by Theodor Herzl), and its basic intention, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria (ibid).”  
When this secular ideology began to dominate the World Zionist Organization, many Torah-committed men and women among our people began to oppose this organization. They refused to join the W.Z.O.; in fact, there were some Torah-committed members of the W.Z.O. who resigned from this organization. These religious opponents felt that the ideology of the W.Z.O. was negating the spiritual meaning of Zion, for Zion is to serve as the center of Torah. In this spirit, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed in his messianic vision, “For from Zion will go forth Torah” (Isaiah 2:3).
The Torah-committed opponents of the W.Z.O. became known as “Chareidim” – a biblical term for those who are fervently loyal to the Word of Hashem (Isaiah 66:5). Many Chareidim joined a new international organization, Agudath Israel, which was led by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages. This Chareidi organization stressed that the Torah is the guiding spirit of our people; thus, the founding conference of Agudath Israel proclaimed that its goal is “the solution of all problems facing the Jewish people in the spirit of the Torah.” (The Struggle and the Splendor)
According to the way the W.Z.O. defined Zionism, is Chanukah a “Zionist” festival? An answer can be found in the following summary of the Chanukah story:
A major stream of ancient Greek thought glorified the gratification of the human being’s physical desires. Greek culture therefore developed a mythology of various gods and goddesses that represented all human cravings and lusts. While Judaism stressed that human beings should serve Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – Who created the human being in the Divine image, most Greeks served the lustful or greedy gods and goddesses that they created in their own image. For example, they worshiped a promiscuous goddess named “Aphrodite” – a goddess that satisfied the sexual lusts and fantasies of male mortals and gods.
The dominant Greek culture venerated physical beauty; thus, Greek art and the Greek gymnasiums glorified the youthful human body. The Torah-based culture of our people, however, focused on holiness – the consecration of the human body and its drives to serving the compassionate and life-giving Divine purpose.

After Alexander the Greek conquered much of the world, his successors – who ruled various parts of his divided empire – strived to impose Greek culture and philosophy upon the conquered peoples. Initially, they were successful in their mission, and the conquered peoples offered little resistance to the cultural imperialism of the Greeks; in fact, when the Syrian-Greeks took control of the Land of Zion, there were a number of wealthy and influential members of our people who were attracted to the pagan Greek culture, and they even encouraged their new rulers to impose Greek culture on our people. The Syrian-Greek rulers felt that the continued existence of the Jewish spiritual culture was a “threat” to the growing influence of Greek culture; thus, they outlawed the study of Torah and the fulfillment of certain mitzvos, including Shabbos and the Covenant of Circumcision. They also imposed the death penalty upon those who violated these edicts. In addition, the Syrian Greeks tried to force our people to give up our belief in the One Creator of all life and adopt paganism. They therefore turned the Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan center of worship which included orgies, and hogs were offered on the Temple Altar to one of their pagan deities.
The Chashmonai family of Kohanim led a rebellion against this attempt to destroy the Jewish spiritual heritage, and Mattisyahu, the patriarch of the family, issued the following proclamation: “Whoever is zealous for the Torah and is steadfast in the Covenant, let him follow me!” This family of Kohanim became known as the “Maccabees.” According to some opinions, the Hebrew letters of “Maccabee” are composed of the initial letters of the following biblical verse which was inscribed on the banner of the Chashmonai family: “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem!” (Exodus 15:11)
In the initial stage of their rebellion, the Maccabees and their followers fled to the mountains in the Judean desert, where they hoped to be able to study and fulfill the Torah. When the Syrian-Greek army pursued them in the mountains, the Maccabees issued a call to our people to resist the Greeks with force, and a new Jewish army was formed. The following biblical quotes can help us to understand the spiritual nature of their struggle:
“For a mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23)
“The soul of the human being is the lamp of Hashem” (Proverbs 20:27).
The Maccabees and their followers were fighting in order to protect the Torah, the Divine light; moreover, they were fighting to protect the mitzvos which serve as lamps for the Divine light. In addition, they were fighting to protect the soul – the lamp of the Divine light within the human being.
The small, but courageous Jewish army began to defeat the large Syrian-Greek army and their Jewish allies. After a long and difficult struggle, the Maccabees and their followers succeeded in driving the Syrian-Greeks from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At this stage, our people had not yet regained political independence in Zion; moreover, parts of Jerusalem and most of the countryside were still under the control of the Syrian Greeks and their Jewish allies. The leading Torah sages, however, decided to establish a festival, in order to celebrate the liberation of the Holy Temple.  
The liberation of the Temple was not the only reason for the declaration of the new festival. After liberating the Temple and removing the idols, the Maccabees wanted to immediately restore the tradition of lighting the Temple Menorah, but all they could find was one small vial of pure olive oil. As the Talmud records (Shabbos 21b), the Syrian-Greeks had contaminated all the flasks of oil that were in the Sanctuary. The Maccabees searched and found only one flask of pure olive oil that had the seal of the “Kohen Gadol” – High Priest. The quantity of oil was only enough for one day, yet, to the amazement of the loyal Jews who had gathered in the Temple, it continued to burn for eight days! This gave the people the opportunity to prepare fresh pure oil.
The sages felt that this was a miracle. And this miracle conveyed the following message for future generations of our people:
No matter how severe the darkness, the Divine light will continue to glow until the whole world will eventually be infused with this light. 
The Festival established by the sages became known as “Chanukah” – a term which refers to “dedication”; for the Temple of Zion and the People of Zion could once again be dedicated to the task of illuminating the world with the Divine light.
We now can begin to answer the question as to whether Chanukah is a “Zionist” Festival. As we discussed, the W.Z.O. developed an ideology which proclaimed that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. According to this secular view, Chanukah is not a “Zionist” festival, for Chanukah celebrates the renewal of Judaism. What makes this festival even more distant from the dominant ideology of the W.Z.O. is that it is not even a celebration of our national independence in Zion, as the festival was established before we regained our political independence; moreover, when we later regained our political independence in Zion, no festival was declared!
There are, however, Jewish men and women who are loyal to the following spiritual understanding of Zion which we discussed in this series:
“Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23), and Zion is the place where we are to develop a Torah society which can serve as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
If we understand “Zionism” according to this spiritual perspective, then Chanukah can be called a “Zionist” festival.
Shalom and a Happy Chanukah,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. On Chanukah, we want to publicize the miracle of the light. The Chanukah lights are therefore lit outside the door of the home, at the entrance of the building, or by a window facing the street. This custom can serve as a reminder that the Divine light is to go out the world.
This year, we light the first light of Chanukah on Wednesday evening, December 1st.
2. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato was a leading sage and kabbalist of the 17th century. In his great work, Derech Hashem – the Way of God, he discusses the deeper significance of the holy days of the Torah, as well as the holy days which were later established by the Prophets and/or Sages of Israel, such as Purim and Chanukah. He writes:
“On each of these special days, something happened whereby at this time a great tikun (rectification) was accomplished and a great Light shone. The Highest Wisdom decreed that on every anniversary of this period, a counterpoint of its original Light should shine forth, and the results of its tikun renewed to those who accept it.” (Derech Hashem – the Way of God, Part 4, Chapter 7).
Feldheim published Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s English translation of this work. For information, visit:   .
3. As we mentioned, the term “Zionism” was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization. He later began to question the movement’s stress on political goals, and he felt there should be a greater emphasis on the cultural strengths of our people. In 1898, he left the Zionist movement in order to become involved with secular activists who focused on strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora and who viewed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazic Jewish culture.
He then developed an inner awareness of the spiritual goal of our people, and he returned to the path of the Torah. He began to challenge the modern paganism of his era, but he also challenged Torah-observant men and women to renew their commitment to the revolutionary vision of the Torah through developing holy and holistic communities.
His activism became inspired by Torah, and he became the Secretary General of Agudath Israel. This gifted leader had previously dedicated his life to strengthening organizations that sought to secularize our people, and he now began to dedicate his life to strengthening an organization that sought to spiritually renew our people.
4. As we discussed, the Festival of Chanukah reminds us of the spiritual purpose of Zion; moreover, it is the only Jewish holiday which celebrates a miracle which took place in the Land of Zion.
5. Much of the information in the above letter is from the book, “Chanukah – Its History, Observance, and Significance” (Mesorah Publications:   ). This book has historical information from early sources, such as the books of Maccabees I and II, and “Megilas Taanis” – an ancient work written by the Chananiah ben Chizkiah.


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