By Shlomo Riskin
The Festival of Chanukah celebrates two momentous and fateful victories of Judea over Greco-Syria in the second century before the Common Era, during the period of the Second Temple. Greco–Syria was one of three heirs to the political and cultural hegemony of Alexander the Great, a masterful military tactician whose goal was to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the “Fertile Crescent.” Despite the brevity of his life, he succeeded to an amazing extent – and, miraculously, he allowed the state of Judea to maintain her municipal and religious independence.
Jewish lore records that when Alexander the Great entered the gates of Jerusalem, the High Priest, Shimon the Righteous, came out to greet him. The mighty conqueror bowed before the High Priest, exclaiming that before every battle, in his dreams, he received a blessing for victory from the High Priest. Hence, Judea received a special dispensation, and that year every male baby born was named Alexander (Yoma 69a).
About 150 years later, prior to the victory of Chanukah, the situation changed drastically. Greco-Syria and Greco-Egypt were struggling for control over the Alexandrian empire, and the High Priests of Judea were becoming more and more enamored of the popular Hellenistic culture. The High Priest Menelaus wished to turn Judea into a Greek City State, bringing the idolatrous activities right into the heart of Jerusalem.
A civil war ensued, with the religious Hasmoneans rebelling valiantly against the establishment Hellenist – assimilationists. When the Hasmoneans appeared close to victory, the Hellenist rulers called Greco-Syria for help, agreeing that once the rebellion was quelled, Judea would become a satrap of Syria. Hence, the Hasmoneans were battling for both the political and religious independence of Judea. Their military victory secured their political independence; the rededication of the Holy Temples’ menorah – symbolizing the “candles of commandment and the light of Torah” (Proverbs 6: 23) – expressed the renewed religious commitment of the newly formed revolutionary leadership.
But if our kindling of the Chanukah menorah represents the victory of Torah Hebraism over assimilationist Hellenism, why does the Talmud ordain that “each person must light in his/her home” (B.T. Shabbat 21b) – in the home and not in the synagogue? The sages called the synagogue “a miniature Holy Temple”, so would it not be more a more appropriate location for our Chanukah celebrations?
I discovered the answer to my query in Portugal. Ohr Torah Stone’s rabbis in Portugal began asking many questions about the Marranos, or Crypto-Jews, who are quite numerous there. These are the descendents of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the times of the Catholic Inquisition. Now they wish to return to their Jewish faith. What is their status? Do they require formal conversion?
I visited Portugal to meet these “Crypto-Jewish” communities in order to assess how to enable them to re-unite with their Jewish heritage. Rabbi Elisha Sales, the rabbi sent by Shavei Yisrael (an organization dedicated to finding “lost Jews”) to minister to the Marrano communities in the towns and villages outside of Lisbon, introduced me to people all of whom shared a burning desire to emerge from their repressed underground of furtive whispers into Jewish pride and observance.
He took me to the magnificent new synagogue in Belmonte where I joined 70-80 Crypto-Jews who gathered for the weekday evening prayer. Every word was recited aloud by each participant. The cantor, a 15-year old student of the rabbi, led us all in the spirited singing. They explained that four families went underground in 1492. For 500 years, their descendents married one another while keeping Judaism secretly. They rebuilt the
synagogue; and now at least 120 come to shul every Friday night and Sabbath day!
At the entrance way to the sanctuary is the following inscription in Hebrew:
“Here in this place, the chain of our tradition has not been severed….As a result of government decrees, the Jewish residents of this village, like other Jews throughout Spain and Portugal, were forced to publicly deny their Jewish religion. But they maintained their Judaism in their homes. Here the candle of Jewish light was never extinguished. For a period of 500 years, from 1492 (when the one synagogue in Belmonte was destroyed) until 2002 (when it was reopened), in the homes of this village the Jewish commandments were secretly performed, the tradition was transmitted from parent to child, in hushed tones, the Sabbath was sanctified in hiding while Sunday was celebrated before the eyes of the neighbors. They made blessings over the hallah and the wine and mumbled words of Hebrew prayers in the darkness. Here the Jewish soul was never lost. Here the Jewish soul remains forever…. From the midst of the past will rise the future. From the bleak darkness of the Middle Ages shall emerge the light of this Synagogue.”
Chanukah celebrates the eternal Jewish spirit in the face of assimilation. Belmonte proves that it is the Jewish home which preserves the Jewish spirit – even in the total absence of a synagogue!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.