Follow by Email

Sunday, 13 December 2009

'Whose Oil Is It Anyway?'

It started as an old soldiers’ holiday. They’d gather year after year, at the darkest time of the year, winter solstice time, and tell their stories, speak of their heroism. They were a group of religious zealots, fiercely nationalistic – and they had waged a guerrilla campaign against their enemies, the Graeco-Syrians, who were occupying their land. Much blood was spilt, on both sides, but they were tough, ruthless – they’d had a cause, a cause they were prepared to kill and die for. Eventually they took the Temple in Jerusalem back into their own hands and re-dedicated it to their God, the God of Israel.

And even though their victory was short-lived and the land was eventually re-occupied - this time by the Romans - the memory of that famous victory against the odds lived on. The stories were told and re-told, passed on, elaborated and embellished along the way. And the message was clear, passed on from generation to generation in those early years, 22 centuries ago: with enough faith and guile and bloody-mindedness – anything is possible.

And this is Hanukah, which of course we celebrate now in a way that goes to some lengths to suppress its original message. Because we aren’t going to be very comfortable with a holiday that commemorates an uprising by a bunch of religious terrorists who refused to accept the dominant assimilated culture of the day, with all its decadent values, its worship of the body and the material world, all those naked statues and philosophic discourses about how to build democracy. We aren’t keen to glorify religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of their faith.

We’d rather think of Hanukah as basically a children’s festival, a time for jollity and presents and greasy foods, a rather sentimental festival of candle-lighting and dreidels and doughnuts. A bit like Christmas but spread out over 8 days and with baby latkes rather than baby Jesus.

But it isn’t only us who might want to downplay the origins of the festival. The rabbis in the Talmud were exactly the same. We are in an honourable tradition of repressing the truth. They too were deeply uncomfortable with celebrating a short-lived military victory – even if it was done in the name of God. They were so uncomfortable with it that they showed their own ruthlessness by suppressing in their writings any mention of the fighting and the force of arms. We reconstruct the history from external sources and the historian Josephus not from mainstream Jewish religious texts.

The Talmud has almost nothing to say about the festival. It just asks – in a tractate about Shabbat observance - the slightly anxious question: ‘Mai Hanukah? What is Hanukah?’ – as if there is some doubt or confusion about it: which indeed there was, if only in their own minds about how to talk about it. And they answer the question by recounting the story which we are familiar with – about the re-dedication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks, with the single cruise of oil lasting miraculously for 8 days.

This was ‘creative’ of them. It takes a kind of brilliant imaginative chutzpah to turn a military victory into a Festival of Lights based on a fable; and then link the celebration to the prophetic text from Zechariah that we still read, with its key refrain, the declaration in the name of God that the Jewish nation, the Jewish people, will succeed ‘Not by might, nor by power – but by My spirit..’ (Zech 4:7).

And in a parallel kind of sleight-of-hand the rabbis of old eventually instituted the prayer that we read after the candle-lighting: ‘Hanerot hallallu...’ . See if you can spot the subtle revisionist spin: ‘We kindle these lights to commemorate the wonders, the heroic acts, the victories, and the marvellous and consoling deeds which You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests in those days at this season...’ (Soferim 20:6, mid-8th century). Do you hear the manipulation of history here? It is classic PR spin. (Alistair Campbell, eat your heart out).

The rabbis here are doing two interlinked things: the first is familiar from Seder night, where Moses is never mentioned throughout the whole story of the exodus from Egypt. It is all done by God. So here too it says that these were marvellous deeds ‘which You performed for our ancestors...’ – how? – ‘through Your holy priests’. And this is the other aspect of their creativity. The phrase ‘Your holy priests’ might be correct in a narrow sense – Matthathias was a priest, which means that his sons were also priests, so Judah the Maccabee (who led the guerrilla forces with his brothers and is the main Hanukah hero) was also technically a priest too, all of them were - even though they couldn’t act as priests because the Temple wasn’t in Jewish hands. They were a priestly family – but without a Temple to practice in. Like the titled English landed gentry who lost their country estates and ended up living on relatives' handouts.

So when our liturgy praises this victory in high-flown language as one that was achieved by God through his ‘holy priests’, it’s a bit like saying that peace came to Northern Ireland through the democratic endeavours of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. (It puts me in mind of the American satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer’s comment that political satire was made obsolete the day they gave the Nobel Peace prize to Henry Kissinger).

But still, this is a kind of inspired genius, this eternal Jewish creativity to reformulate the past in the light of current needs and preoccupations. And Hanukah has become a festival where the symbolic and metaphorical resonances now dominate the imagination. It has become a time to focus on the faith needed, individually and collectively, to persevere against the odds; a time to reflect on the motif of light in our lives (an archetypal theme) as we hope for the victory of ‘light’ over the forces of ‘darkness’.

The problem of course is that we always think our cause represents the ‘light’ – and those opposed to us are the forces of ‘darkness’.

As the world leaders gather during these fateful days in Copenhagen we can see this being played out powerfully in front of our eyes. The facts of climate-change as a human-made catastrophe in the making – like watching a deadly car-crash in slow motion – these facts have achieved an overwhelming scientific consensus. But the forces ranged against this ‘inconvenient truth’ are very powerful: the climate denial industry, which has no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, comes in many guises. PR companies and hired experts, representing the business interests of oil and coal, can and do co-opt scientists and politicians – mainly in the States but also here – to systematically cast doubt on the scientific consensus (see, for example,

This consensus – and I hear people every day hedging their bets about it under pressure from the media onslaught of the deniers - this consensus is as clear in its evidence-based view that global warming is man-made as is the scientific consensus on the link between smoking and lung cancer. Or HIV and Aids. Yet each side see themselves as representing the light – and the others as dwelling in darkness.

In Copenhagen they aren’t arguing the facts – they are arguing like Joseph and his brothers in this week's sedrah (Genesis 37): arguing over who will rule over whom, ‘we’re not going to bow down to you’, arguing over how much they have to gain and how much they have to lose. Copenhagen reveals the global sibling rivalry, all the envy and jealousy writ large, these never-changing human attributes. Will effective action be agreed? We don’t know. We can hope so – even if our hopes are shadowed by the knowledge that it all might be too little, too late.

But I think we can understand psychologically the arguments we hear in our newspapers and TV and radio, casting doubt on the evidence. Although behind the scenes these doubts are promoted for sound business reasons ('sound' in their own terms), they can touch a chord in us because - well, because the facts are all too painful to contemplate, too frightening to think about, too potentially disturbing of our settled and relatively comfortable lifestyles to come to terms with. Things will have to change. We will have to change. And we will need a kind of miracle to see us through. A miracle that this time round we hold in our own hands, a miracle we will have to nurture in our own hearts.

‘[we]spoke softly about disasters,
about what lay ahead, the coming fear,
and someone said this was the best
we could do now –
to talk of darkness in that bright shadow

(from Adam Zagajewski’s ‘At the Cathedral’s Foot’)

It is perhaps ironical that our festival of Hanukah is about oil. And how long it lasts. As if in a completely unconscious way, in an almost uncanny way, the rabbis of old had a revelation that even they did not understand the significance of. We have to learn to make do with less, they intuited. And they found a symbolic way to express this. We think we need a lot to survive - but we can manage with an eighth of what we imagine we need. That does require faith, and trust: what we truly need is with us already. It’s in us, this precious gift, ‘the light of God’ our tradition calls it, in the human soul, the spark of the divine in us, and generated between us in community.

It gives us the courage to face the darkness, to face the truth about our world, to see its fragility – our planet is like a flickering candle in the slipstream of time. Less is going to have to mean more. Less comfort, less security, less recklessness, less denial, less waste, less holding on to what we have, less accumulating what we don’t need. Hanukah teaches the lesson of less – one day’s worth of oil is enough to last. The miracle is not that it lasts. The miracle is when we believe that it can last, what we have. The miracle is that we can depend not on might or power but on the Spirit - and that we are given what we need day by day.

(Sermon FRS , Hanukah, 11 December 2009)


  1. Rowan Williams, Copenhagen, December 14
    "We are afraid because we don't know how we can survive without the comforts of our existing lifestyle. We are afraid that new policies will be unpopular with a national electorate. We are afraid that younger and more vigorous economies will take advantage of us - or we are afraid that older, more historically-dominant economies will use the excuse of ecological responsibility to deny us our proper and just development".

  2. I am so pleased that you speak about what I consider to be the greates issue of our time: global warming. I like the link to Hanukah, the small amount lasting longer.

    I read your latest blog first and having read this one I think that it is our task to find/put new meaning in our festivals to make them relevant to today. Not as cosy as following ancient traditions for which we may have forgotten the meaning; harder work intellectually but, for me, the only way to maintain meaning in our practices.As always being Jewish is hard work.

    As a footnote I think that Christians also have a struggle putting real values into Christmas and not letting consumerism and ancient family practices take over.