Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

With Chanukah approaching, The Jewish Press visited Rav Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalyim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The yeshiva is located in the building that housed the famed Torat Haim Yeshiva until 1936 when Arab pogroms, and the British Mandate authority, forced the Jews to abandon the once-thriving Jewish neighborhood,.

At the time of the expulsion, the Arab caretaker of the building locked the yeshiva’s doors and claimed that the building was his, thus preventing rioters and plunderers from entering. During Israel’s War of Independence, Jordan captured the Old City and destroyed every one of the 80 yeshivas and synagogues in the Muslim Quarter – except for the Torat Chaim building. Like the small flask of oil discovered by the Maccabees, the yeshiva remained untouched. When Tzahal liberated the Old City in 1967, the Arab caretaker handed over the key to the building, declaring that the holy place watched over him more than he watched over it.

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While many former Jewish buildings in the neighborhood have been reclaimed and populated by young, idealistic Jewish families, the quarter is still overwhelmingly Muslim, with Arab shops lining the casbah which leads to the yeshiva. Visiting the yeshiva, you can feel the valor of its students, who dedicate themselves day and night to learning Torah in the midst of a hostile Arab neighborhood.

The Jewish Press: Very often, Israeli media portray your students and the Jews who live in the Muslim Quarter as fanatics and messianic dreamers who incite the wrath of the gentiles against us.

Rav Aviner: At the time of the Maccabees’ war, that is how most of the Jews regarded Yehudah. At the beginning of the rebellion, only a handful followed him. In the battle against Lysias, he mustered an army of 10,000, but by the fourth encounter with the legions of Greece, only 4,000 men stood by him in the vital fight for religious freedom and national sovereignty.

The vast majority of Jews were against him. They scoffed at the possibility that a tiny force of untrained and poorly armed farmers from Judea could overcome the mighty armies of Greece. They called Yehudah a fanatic and messianic dreamer, who endangered the security of the nation, just like we hear today in the secular media regarding the settlers in East Jerusalem and Yesha. But the truth is the very opposite. Yehudah HaMaccabee was a realist.

In what way?

He was as aware of the reality of the precarious situation as anyone else. Even his own soldiers warned him of the seemingly insurmountable dangers. But Yehudah’s more enlightened perspective encompassed generations. He reminded his troops that if Jewish history had followed the path of the pragmatists, Am Yisrael would never have left Egypt, David would never had killed Goliath, and the Jews would never have established their own Israelite kingdom in a country inhabited by seven hostile nations.

Yehudah reminded them that Hashem is the chief of staff of the armies of Israel and that, if He wills, the Master of Wars can readily triumph over powerful enemies with a tiny number of Jews filled with emunah. And he reminded his followers that trust in Hashem was not just some fairytale for children, but a down-to-earth reality in the life and history of the Jewish people.

The same is true today. Hashem gave Jerusalem and all the Land of Israel to the Jews. Disbelievers and the nations of the world can say what they say, but the promise of Hashem is eternal. We are here to stay.

In describing Chanukah, the Gemara focuses on the pure flask of oil burning for eight days while Shemoneh Esrei and Birchat HaMazon focus on the military victory of the few against the many. Which miracle is more significant?

The Maharal, in his treatise on Chanukah, “Ner Mitzvah,” writes that the military victory was the primary miracle. In effect, the miracle of the menorah wasn’t necessary. When there is no pure oil, it is permissible to light with impure oil. It is similar to the law that allows the Korban Pesach to be sacrificed, and even for the Beit HaMikdash to be built, when the majority of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael are impure.

Additionally, the lighting of the menorah was halted by the Greeks many years previously. Waiting another few days until pure oil could be procured wouldn’t have been a tragedy. Furthermore, every time the menorah was lit in the past, a miracle occurred since after all of the lights died out, the western lamp continued to burn day and night. Thus, the Chanukah light that lasted eight days was just another miracle of the menorah.

So the Maharal explains that the miracle of the menorah wasn’t for its own sake; rather, it was to teach us that the victory over the Greeks was a miracle from heaven as well. The miracle of the oil was the “teudat hakashrut” revealing to everyone that Hashem was the invisible hand behind the military triumphs of the Maccabees.

If victory in war is the main thing, why, in our time, did the Chief Rabbinate of Israel establish Yom HaAtzma’ut and the recital of Hallel on the day the state was declared, when there was no miracle at all, rather than on the anniversary of the day when the war ended, symbolizing the salvation of the nation?

Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook was asked this very same question. He answered that the greater miracle occurred with the declaration of Jewish statehood, when we overcame all doubts, hesitations, and fears of the Arabs and the nations of the world – when we stood up and boldly proclaimed the establishment of Medinat Yisrael.

This awakening of Jewish valor in the eyes of all mankind, after nearly 2,000 years of Jewish impotence in the galut, was the foundation for all of the military miracles that followed after that in Israel’s wars.

The Gemara says we say Hallel on Chanukah but not on Purim because the miracle of Purim happened outside Eretz Yisrael. Why must a miracle occur in Israel for us to say Hallel?

[Because being] subjects of a foreign nation is unnatural to our essence, as the Psalmist says, ‘How can we sing Hashem’s song in a foreign land?’ (Tehillim 137). The Jewish people as a whole can only attain true national simcha in Eretz Yisrael, in our own land, not when we live in gentile countries, subjugated to gentile cultures and gentile laws.

Our joy on Chanukah expresses our healthy, natural condition, which comes to expression, as the Maharal explains in the first chapter of ‘Nezach Yisrael,’ when three conditions are met: the nation is physically together, the nation enjoys sovereignty, and the nation dwells in Eretz Yisrael.

In Israel, many people and yeshivot light their menorahs outside by the doorways to their building in the public domain as mentioned in halacha. In the Diaspora where anti-Semitism is rising, should Jews do the same as an expression of Jewish pride, or is it better to light inside the house or yeshiva building?

Everyone has to evaluate the options for themselves, but certainly, if there is a clear danger, it is proper to light inside.

Does Hellenism still exist today?

Definitely. There are many forms of Hellenism. For the ancient Greeks, Hellenism meant conforming to Greek culture, which glorified the body and fostered the free expression of individual lusts and pleasures.

The term for this is Hedonism. This exists today in the cultures of Western society where movements of liberalism and pluralism abound. In ancient Greece, the indulging in pleasure was a way of serving the gods. Today, the quest for pleasure and surrendering to its temptations are the gods themselves.

How can we fight against this cultural impurity and moral darkness?

By adding holiness and light.

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