Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Reaction to the Shifting Miracle of Chanukka

Let us face it. Claiming the miracle of the cruse of oil by Chanukka did not occur historically need not be heretical, or even be such a big deal. It depends on how it is presented, in what context, and to what audience. But when ursine blogger DovBear did just that it caused quite the stir by many at different locations on the frummie-koifer continuum -- something he has a talent for, and which I think he hoped for, because controversy means hits and audience.

I think Mississipi Fred MacDowell from On The Main Line could have presented much the same material without the controversy, by placing it in specific context. And I could have also presented this material without as much controversy, mostly because I have a small fraction of DovBear's readership, but also because I would have presented it in a different manner and placed it in a different context. This aside from the various objections I made on factual grounds in this post.

It is interesting to consider why it is that this sparked such discussion, and I will turn to this later in this post. But first, let me show how I might have presented it. While in blockquote, in fact this first appears in this blogspost:
Besides for the known aspects of Chanukka of military victory, rededication of the Temple and maintaining religious integrity against the challenge of Hellenism, a major aspect is the miracle of the cruse of oil. In the Talmudic account, the Maccabees recapture the Temple and wish to light the Menorah, but all the oil has been rendered impure by the Yevanim. However, they found one cruse of oil which still bore the seal of the High Priest, and so it had not been rendered impure. There was only enough oil to burn for one day but miraculously it lasted for eight. The next year they established it as a Yom Tov.

To what time period does this account date? Is it contemporary, or was it composed centuries after the event? This is an important consideration because contemporary accounts do not appear to record the specific miracle of the cruse of oil. That is, I Maccabees, contemporary to Judah Maccabee makes no mention of any miracle, and bases the eight days of Chanukka on the fact that this was the length of the rededication ceremony Judah Maccabee made that year. II Maccabees contains accounts of other miracles, but not the miracle of the cruse of oil, and adds the fact that they looked back at the days of Succot just past where they lived like animals, unable to offer sacrifices, in contrast to now, and so they were happy during this 8 day rededication ceremony, taking lulav bundles in hand. Josephus also makes no mention of the cruse of oil. In particular, the parallel to Succot in II Maccabees gives a great, contemporary reason for the 8 days of Chanukka, a problem which some take seriously as raised by the Bet Yosef in his famous question that the first day was non-miraculous.

There is room to dispute the implication that this miracle did not occur. I Maccabees and II Maccabees are books of the Apocrypha, preserved by the Christians in Greek, yet certain turns of phrase demonstrate that the Greek is a translation from some Hebrew original of the book. The composition of these books also predate the Christians, which means that they were composed by Jews in Hebrew, even if they did not enter into the canon of Tanach. The reaction of some might be that in contrast between books of the Apocrypha and the heiligeh gemara, the heilige gemara wins out. Yet these are not Christian books, and can be useful as contemporary documents to shed light on the history.

One can also follow the path of Rabbi Dr. David Berger, who points out that II Maccabees shows that miracle stories were known at that time, yet I Maccabees left them out, thus showing that as a historiographical matter, it makes sense for I Maccabees to leave out the miracle of the cruse of oil. In terms of II Maccabees, there are greater miracles mentioned in the book, while the cruse of oil is an itty-bitty miracle. II Maccabees is explicitly an abridgment of a larger 5-volume work, and so this miracle might have been left out in the original for not being dramatic enough or in the abridgment for much the same reason. (So ends my summary of Dr. Berger.)

Similarly, Josephus might have left out this minor miracle, choosing instead to focus on other aspects of the events. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, particularly where there is a good accounting for the why of the absence of evidence.

Furthermore, the Succot connection further demonstrates this point of absence of evidence. It is mentioned in II Maccabees, and while some scholars suggest some parts were composed later, I believe the general assumption is that the Succot connection is contemporary (certainly by those who attempt to supplant the cruse of oil). Yet I Maccabees omits it. And Josephus omits it. If this is such an important aspect of Chanukka, then how could these contemporary sources have omitted it. Has II Maccabees not survived and the gemara made such a connection, people might have been leveling similar charges as they do regarding the cruse of oil! And II Maccabees contains miraculous stories, another reason to dismiss it. And II Maccabees was redacted centuries after!

Also, there is room to say that the cruse of oil reason coexisted with other reasons. This certainly appears to be the approach of the Hebrew Scholion to the Tannaitic (early 1st century, about 150 years after Judah Maccabee) Megillat Taanit. (The Hebrew Scholion is dated to much later by many scholars, even to post-Talmudic times.) That account gives separate accounts of the miracle (the cruse of oil), the reason for eight days (that is how long it took to purify), and the lighting (that is what the Chasmonaim did when they entered with seven metal rods). Other sources stress other aspects besides the cruse of oil. Thus the early geonic midrash Pesikta Rabbati mentions other aspects.

Also, that it is mentioned in the gemara does not mean that it dates to Ravina/Rav Ashi. Rather, at the latest, it dates then, but might be much earlier. We might argue that it is explicitly Tannaitic by noting that the gemara introduced it as "Mai Chanukka deTno Rabbanan," and noting that the brayta is Megillat Taanit, which contains all this material. However, we can (rightly) reject it by noting that there is an Aramaic and Hebrew component, and scholars date the Aramaic Mishna to early first century and the Hebrew Scholion to even post-Talmudic times. Thus, the Tno Rabbanan could (and I would say should) be read as a citation of Megillat Taanit. What is this Chanukka that we learnt in a brayta that 8 days, starting from 25 Kislev, one may not fast nor eulogize thereon? Because... Then the gemara itself or some other source -- we do not know from what time, gives the explanation. The miracle of oil. The Hebrew Scholion to Megillat Taanit would be then citing this explanation.

There is also the existence of Megillat Antiochus, which mentions the cruse of oil, which has a disputed composition date, but which a few argue is contemporary. 'Nuff said about Megillat Antiochus.

The following point is important: I would also note that this account of nes Chanukka may well be considered aggada. There are different types of aggada in Talmud. Some is historical and some is metaphorical. If it was intended historically, we can begin to enter into the whole question of whether Chazal were absolutely accurate in their history, or wished to be. Some might heartily endorse this proposition, and some would consider blasphemous, or at the least, insulting. This is something that can be considered and discussed, but I would sidestep all of this and consider that as aggada, it might well have been intended metaphorically.

That is:
The Chashmonaim prevailed over the Greeks (militarily and spiritually) and when they entered the Temple, they found that all the oil had been rendered impure by the Syrian Greeks (just as haskafically, the vast majority of Jews had been Hellenized and rendered impure). Yet they found one cruse of oil (themselves) which had not been rendered impure (by Hellenic influence) marked with the Kohen Gadol's seal (for they were Mattityahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol, and his sons). This was only enough to last for one day (for they were so few against so many) yet it lasted eight days (enough for military and spiritual victory).

Thus, this can all be read as a metaphor, accurately accounting for exactly what we say in Al HaNissim.

Chazal were also aware of the Succot connection. Thus, Bet Shammai suggests counting down in candles per day, in parallel to the cows offered as sacrifices during Succot, which really only makes sense with the Succot connection. A Baal Tosafot, R Yonatan miLunel mentions the Succot connection, as does the Aruch haShulchan as well as (IIRC) the Tur. There is also the Tanna Rabbi Yehuda, who discusses a fire caused by an animal passing by Chanukka lamps outside, and draws a parallel to Succot left outside in the public domain. There is also the parallel of a Succah higher than 20 cubits being invalid, just as there is an issue with a Chanukka lamp higher than 20 cubits.

Of course, different people will make of all of this what they will, depending on their background and ideology. Myself included.
And that is why so few people read parshablog. ;)

I mention other aspects of this in previous posts, so feel free to look around.

Now on to the related question. Why such a big deal?

For DovBear, besides trolling for hits, I think it is two aspects. First and foremost, his big pet peeve, or chip on his shoulder, depending on your perspective, is how Chareidim and typical yeshiva educated people only know of the midrash. Thus, he gets annoyed and rants about Rivka being 3 or any other thing of which people only know the midrash, and likes to point out an answer on the level of peshat. The Succot connection seems on the level of peshat, and avoids miracles, which the Talmudic account is akin to midrash, and is miraculous. This is right up DovBear's alley. Secondly, he reads XGH and likes absence of evidence issues, and this was a recycling of an old Mis-nagid post.

For the "Frummies," DovBear's presentation was galling. He assumed straight-up that the Talmudic account was fiction, deliberately created many years after the events of Chanukka for some sociological purpose. Thus, he considered what could motivate this shift in emphasis and the genesis of this miracle. That his evidence of this shift was based on incorrect dates of his sources was something I found issue with, but what they found issue with was this basic assumption. He made no mention of Dr. Berger's attempted resolution of this absence (I'm not sure that he was aware of it), or that this could be an Oral Tradition. Nor does he suggest it is allegory (as I did, but which he had no way of doing.) Assuming straight-up that Chazal are inventing miracles and fictionalizing history, only musing about their specific motivation, will grate with the Frummie readers. And rather than presenting what I presented above, which requires some research and knowledge of the background of all of this, they reacted viscerally.

They also reacted to the subtext. This was after all derived from a Mis-nagid post, though most did not know it (since DovBear is somewhat lazy in giving attribution, as DovWeasel later pointed out), but a bit of this shone through. The way this is presented, there are obvious parallels to e.g. Pesach.

That is, we have a Jewish holiday with a popular, traditional, Orthodox reason. Contemporary historical evidence does not exist that supports the Torah/Talmudic account, at least the spotty historical evidence that we have. Therefore, reject the traditional account as fictional and give a less-miraculous account credence.

That attitude shone through, and even if this is just a midrash or aggada in the Talmud, and there are ways to deal with it, the deeper issue is do we value or accept this type of approach.

That people used academic language to defend the position -- language which is not the yeshivishe reid and was bound to be misunderstood further confounded matters. Thus, the meaning of the phrase "pre-Christian Greek translation" was obvious to me, but was misunderstood and mis-parsed by others. Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omed.

For the "Koifers" -- well, it depends. Some are emotionally motivated, and love to leap into the fray. Some saw it as opportunity to bolster the absence of evidence aspect. Some were annoyed by the "Frummie" reaction.

1 comment:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

great post! amazing how you can take what was such an inflammatory topic on DovBear and give it a practically mundane tone with just a bit of contextualization and tact.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin