“We Do Not Immortalize a Catastrophe”: On Chanukah, Violence, and History

by Aron Wander, for All That’s Left

This Chanukah, All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, is publishing a series of eight essays — one for each day of Chanukah — from left-wing rabbis, rabbinical students, and Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on the Festival of Lights in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here

“[The Rabbis] did not set the tale of the might and heroism of the Jewish war and victory in the book of Israel or its heart,” wrote Rabbi Avraham Chein, “because they neither wanted nor were able to give iron and blood as an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob” (Avraham Chein, BeMalchut HaYehadut Vol. 2, Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook (1963), p. 164).

R’ Chein, a 20th-century Chabadnik, anarchist, and pacifist, insisted that the Talmud’s near-erasure of the Hasmonean victory in its description of the Hanukkah miracle (b. Shabbat 21b) expressed a political, religious, and moral condemnation of violence. “Even that holy war was a catastrophe,” he wrote. “We do not immortalize a catastrophe… [the people of] Israel has never once set a holiday commemorating its weapons” (ibid., p. 165)

What, then, did Hanukkah commemorate? “The eternal war between [Greece and the Jewish people] is in its essence and core a war between two ‘lights,’” he argued. “Behold, Plato, the great light of Greece and bearer of the entire world’s holy light… legislates… an entire system of hierarchies from master to slave; he argues that it is an obligation and mitzvah to kill sick children, frail elderly people, and people with disabilities” (ibid., p. 172-173).

Against a system that endorsed domination and considered vulnerable people to be disposable, R’ Chein insisted that Judaism declared the opposite. “[Judaism demands] not just juridical and economic equality but even total psychological equality. No ladder or hierarchy – this is the mission of Judaism” (ibid., p. 173). 

Viewed as historical claims, R’ Chein’s arguments are questionable. Though the Rabbis did largely erase the Hasmonean victory from their discussion of Hanukkah, they also briefly valorized it elsewhere in the canon (eg, Talmud Bavli Megillah 6a and 11a). And to the degree they ignored it, there are competing explanations – chief among them that the Rabbis were afraid of the imperial powers under which they lived or that they took issue with the Hasmonean dynasty’s later corruption and embrace of Greek culture. R’ Chein protested these alternative explanations, but his rebuttals are less than convincing.

His claims about the opposition between Hellenic and Jewish culture are also debatable. Though Jewish literature, as the product of an oppressed people, may have been more sensitive than that of Greece to the evils of domination and empire, the Torah and Rabbinic texts have their own endorsements of hierarchy and fantasies of domination. And, of course, there is no clear binary between the two cultures: before the Hasmonean revolt, under the Hasmoneans themselves, under the Roman Empire, and throughout history, Jews and Judaism absorbed a tremendous amount of Greek influence. 

Does that mean that R’ Chein’s attempts to ground a pacifist, egalitarian ethic in the Rabbis’ attitude towards Chanukah is “wrong”? Only if we’re solely concerned with a purely historical question. But the Rabbis themselves were concerned not with history but with interpretation. Their guiding question was, “How might we reimagine the past in order to guarantee a religiously and morally viable future?” Confronted, for instance, with the horrifying command in the Torah that, should a city embrace idolatry, every inhabitant must be put to the sword and all property burned (Deut. 13:13-19), they insisted, “There never has and never will be such a case” (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 71a). It was clear to them that such a violent, brutal commandment, taken at face value, could not be part of a moral Judaism.

R’ Chein, too, sought to recycle the past in order to build a Jewish future: one in which traditional Judaism nourished an opposition to nationalism, statism, and militarism, opposed all forms of domination, and affirmed the supreme value of all human life. But even as he wrote, R’ Chein surely knew that the Judaism he envisioned was unlikely at best. In the face of rising antisemitism, Jews across Europe were already turning towards a Jewish version of militant European nationalism as a solution to their oppression. 

R’ Chein had a complicated relationship to Zionism. He defended the settlement of Jews in the land of Israel and, contrary to his anarchism, theoretically supported the idea of a Jewish state on the condition that it be established nonviolently, though this was a condition he almost certainly knew could not be met. (See Hayyim Rothman, “The Jewish Inheritors of Tolstoy,” p. 89-91.) Nevertheless, when the state was founded violently – through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – he resigned himself to it, seemingly in violation of his own commitments.*

But regardless of these contradictions, he was fundamentally opposed to the militaristic and ethno-nationalist currents that came to dominate Zionism before, during, and after 1948, and the implications of his thought are more radical than he perhaps dared to admit. As Hayyim Rothman, a scholar of anarcho-Judaism, explains:

“[Chein and similar figures] resolutely affirm the Jewish right of settlement and development in the land of Israel. They are of one mind, however, that this cannot come at the cost of betraying Jewish tradition… Since the State of Israel was founded on violence, on blood, fire, and iron, and continues to maintain itself by the same means… it follows that [from their perspective]… this state, like every other state, is morally indefensible. Thus, while none of these men could or would support the violent forms which opposition to the State of Israel has assumed since 1948, each of them would necessarily support dismantling the State in favor of a more just form of social, political, and economic organization” (ibid, p. 136).

Nearly a century later, such a vision seems to have irreversibly lost. The vast majority of Jews are committed to a form of Zionism that insists on preserving a demographic Jewish majority in Israel at the cost of ethnic cleansing, occupation, and apartheid. Within such a climate, militarism and nationalism have been elevated to supreme Jewish values, over against those that R’ Chein advocated for. 

R’ Chein would, of course, have vociferously condemned Hamas’ brutal, unconscionable massacre, torture, rape, and kidnapping of 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals on October 7th. But he would have doubtless also opposed Israel’s killing of over 15,000 Palestinians (of whom even the IDF admits that the vast majority were civilians), leveling of a significant portion of Gaza, and displacement of more than a million civilians in response. And, just as certainly, he would have protested the brutal blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank that long predated this war. 

It may be that the Jewish future belongs, for the time being, to nationalism and militarism. These forces have not only nearly won the Jewish present, but are also attempting to solidify their grip on the Jewish past. It is an indication of Zionism’s victory over its one-time competitors – Bundism, diasporism, socialism, liberalism – that for many Jews today, Israel is in spite of its fundamental flaws the end towards which all of Jewish history has been moving. For all that the Rabbis sought to suppress the Hasmonean victory, Chanukah itself is now celebrated as a proto-Zionist military holiday – a far cry from the anti-militarist commemoration R’ Chein envisioned – and most Jews cannot imagine it otherwise. 

But even in defeat, R’ Chein’s writings may furnish us with the bare minimum necessary for continuing to resist these currents: the knowledge that the path the Jewish people has chosen was contingent and not destined. There have always been alternatives to the dystopia in which we find ourselves, and the past – despite Zionism’s insistence – is still open to interpretation, and it may still be enlisted in the service of a future beyond hierarchy and violence in which everyone in this land, Palestinians and Jews, are guaranteed freedom and safety.

Walter Benjamin wrote that each generation is “endowed with a weak Messianic power” insofar as it might bring about the redemption of which previous generations dreamed (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 2007, p. 254). R’ Chein lived to see his dream of an anti-nationalist, anti-militarist Judaism be largely buried. And, in tacitly accepting the violence of Israel’s founding, he himself shoveled some of the dirt. Will we succeed in excavating that dream? I do not know. But I take hope in this: if, in the coming decades of struggle, we too do not manage to ensure the sort of Jewish future for which R’ Chein yearned, others may yet come after us and redeem our pasts along with his. 

* Rothman notes, “[W]hile Heyn may have reconciled himself to the idea of a Jewish State — and his biography undoubtedly gives evidence of this — his system of political theology cannot be so reconciled. Judging from the standpoint of his thought and not his personal decisions, Judaism and statecraft are utterly inconsistent with one another.” Ibid., 91. See also Hayyim Rothman, No Masters But God, Manchester: Manchester University Press (2021), 178-180.

Aron Wander is an activist, writer, and rabbinical student living in Jerusalem. His writing can be found at  

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