The rabbis of the Talmud created an alternative reality about Chanukkah. Such words sound bad these days, like false-facts and post-truth. But that’s not what they intended, or achieved.
The politics of the Maccabean era was complex and messy. What is clear is that when Palestine passed from Ptolemaic rule in Egypt to Seleucid domination from Damascus, life become more complex and Jewish autonomy compromised. It wasn’t only that Antiochus Epiphanes was power crazy as well, many believe, as simply mad. Hellenist culture spread subtly into education, recreation, governance and law. It divided Jewish loyalties, all the way up to the rank of High Priest. Competing factions fought and blood was shed to purchase this ‘religious’ office from the Seleucid powers. It is not surprising that revolt and bitter conflict followed, in which the Maccabees fought for the independence of the Jewish commonwealth against vast and well-equipped armies. Only, it seems the Hasmonaean kingdom which they founded morphed into a dynasty not entirely unlike the powers it displaced.
The rabbis of the Talmud scarcely refer to all this bloodshed and turmoil. Instead, they tell the story of the single unsullied vial the victors searched for and found when they re-conquered the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the oil which should have burnt for just one day but illumined the Menorah for eight.
This is the ‘alternative reality’ they fashioned. Throughout our subsequent exiles and returns, through all the political confusion of history, it is this simple story which has endured. It is neither false nor merely fable. It doesn’t deny anything which may actually have happened. Rather, it expresses a deeper reality, a vital and eternal truth, to which life bears witness all the time.
The mystics understood that what the Maccabees rekindled was no ordinary flame but Or Haganuz, the hidden light, that first radiance with which God drew dawn out of darkness at the beginning of creation. Then God hid it, leaving the practical tasks of measuring day and night to the sun, moon and stars.
Those mystics debate where God concealed that primal light: In the Torah? In the souls of the righteous? In the world to come? I prefer their simplest answer: everywhere, in each and every human being and in all life. We have only to recognise it, to see, and see by, it.
It is the eagerness in the face of a child, the radiance in the eyes of wisdom coupled with kindness. It is the creative fire in which music and poetry are fashioned. It is the wonder of wild places, and the soul of a garden. It is the tenderness of a carer guiding with dignity arthritic fingers to hold a flexi-straw.
It’s inevitable that we only occasionally perceive this light. It’s in the nature of our fraught minds and hectic lives that we only rarely glimpse it in others or feel it illumine our spirit. But it is there always, though often suppressed and downtrodden.
It is a flame deeper than political division. It burns equally in our interlocutors and opponents. It may be forced to resort to bunkers and sealed rooms in wartime. Excess and exploitation hide it. But it never goes out. The mystics hold that those eight days for which it burnt in the Temple add up to more than one week plus twenty-four hours: they signify eternity.
This is the flame we light on Chanukah, in our windows and in our soul.