15 December 2020

Hanukkah with Professor Noam Zion

During the first semester, the Russell Berrie Fellows had the chance of attending a series of online lectures on The Foundations of Rabbinic Judaism: The Institution of the Beit Midrash (the House of Torah Study) and the Origins of the Mishnah and Talmud taught by Prof. Noam Zion. A Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Prof. Zion studied philosophy, Bible and rabbinics at different institutions such as Columbia University, the Hebrew University, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash.

During the 8-day celebration of Hanukkah, which ran this year from Dec 10th-18th 2020, he gave a class to help students have a deeper understanding of this festival.

“Hanukkah was originally a public holiday, celebrating the political independence of the Jewish people approximately 2200 years ago, but also a celebration of the dynasty of the new priests, the Macabeees, who led the Jewish revolt against Antiochus. The story of Hanukkah is contained in the Books of Maccabees”, explained Prof. Zion.

“Historically, public processions were done around the temple in celebration, but after Roman conquest and the destruction of the 2nd Temple, that was no longer an option. There wasn’t an independent public space left, therefore Hanukkah became a 'home holiday’,” he continued.

The holiday’s ritual practice includes lighting candles each night and eating oily foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Because Hanukkah candles are placed on a home’s doorstep or in its window—both inside and outside—the holiday also “holds a liminal space, complexifying the relationship between the private and the public,” commented Prof. Zion.

Retracing back in history the different phases of this festival, Prof. Zion explained that there was a period after the establishment of the state of Israel in which Hanukkah was a public holiday again. It was seen as an independence day of sorts in Israel in the 1930s & 40s and in the 1950s there was public lighting of menorahs and menorahs built on top of many public buildings that you can still see today. In the 1970s Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day took prominence and Hanukkah went back to being a “home holiday”.

People tend to think that all Jews interpret this holiday in the same way. “Although the ritual observance of lighting the candles and eating oily foods is fairly consistent – commented Prof. Zion – each Jewish community or ideological group understands the meaning of the holiday through the lenses of their own values.”

There is a fundamental question Prof. Zion invites everyone to ask: “If it’s a holiday celebrating light, and the battle of light against Darkness, who is the light and who is the darkness?” Different communities give different answers to this question and Prof. Zion gave a few examples.

The Ultra-Orthodox would interpret the holiday as a battle between the light of the Torah and darkness of Hellenisation/The Enlightenment while Secular/Religious Zionists on the other hand might see the Maccabees as warriors fighting for their religious freedom and political independence. Many North American Jews view Hanukkah as the holiday of Religious Freedom that celebrates a minority preserving its own religious autonomy against an encroaching majority culture, a narrative that fits well with American and Canadian multicultural values. Hanukkah “continues to be a holiday which is about a culture war,” concluded Prof. Zion.

When asked about his favorite part of the holiday, Prof. Zion said “For me, I view Jewish holidays as a form of education not only about history but also about character.” Each holiday is about emphasizing a character trait to develop in yourself, and for him Hanukkah is about profiles in courage.

Inspired by JFK’s who wrote a collection called Profiles in Courage in which he talked about Civil Courage in the United States, Prof. Zion wrote a Hanukkah book including eight Stories, one for each night, that highlight different types of courage. He made the distinction that this is not about lifting up heroes, because people expect heroes to be perfect people. These are stories of regular people who showed moral courage and cunning, who were persecuted or who struggled for their values including righteous gentiles who saved his wife’s family during the Shoah in Holland, a Bar Mitzvah boy in Israel defending his crops against robber bands all night, and a Soviet Jew who was imprisoned under false accusations of being an American spy by the KGB.

Prof. Zion has many years of experience teaching the Russell Berrie Fellows who come to visit the Shalom Hartman Institute as a part of the annual Israel Study Tour in Jerusalem. He also had the opportunity to teach an intensive course in Rome in 2017 which he deeply enjoyed, recalling that “the students were very welcoming and even though they themselves were guests in Rome, they became hosts for us in Rome.”

He said that one of the special things from his experience in Rome was that him and his wife were often asked if they would like to go for dinner, to which they would respond, “That’s very nice of you but what we would really like to do is get a tour of your favourite places in Rome, especially your favourite Churches in Rome.” They had many opportunities to visit churches with Russell Berrie Fellows during their month in Rome, and he remembers the experience fondly. He explained that “to go to a church and see it through the eyes of a believing Christian, each one with a different background, whether it was Irish or Lebanese Maronite, was a very powerful experience for us and coming to appreciate Rome that way was great .”

Being in Rome allowed Prof. Zion to create several experiential learning opportunities for Fellows; he invited the Fellows to his place twice for Shabbat meals, including one time while his children and grandchildren were visiting. Prof. Zion said that “it was very nice for them to see a family shabbat and participate.” Fellows also went to the major synagogue in Rome to see the reading of the scroll of Esther for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Using his specialization in Jewish Holiday Education, Prof. Zion was able to craft these wonderfully rich experiences for Fellows combining living religious-experiences in the communal and familial context and then also translating it to the historical and textual basis.

This year we are not allowed to live such an in-person experience but we discovered that so much can be done and experienced although at distance and the Fellows highly enjoyed the series of lectures that allowed them plenty of chances to discuss and learn. Being virtually together for Hanukkah was a big plus and candles were lit in Europe, Africa, Asia and America by the Russell Berrie Fellows and JPII Leaders who attended the lecture from their homes. We were distant but so close.

If you are interested in watching some of the classes, check out our Vimeo