This Week’s Guest: Mark Gottlieb
When the Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah each winter, what are they celebrating? The story of the holiday is the tale of rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been occupied and defiled by the Seleucid Greeks, who—with the aid of Hellenizing Jews—were not content to have conquered the land but also demanded that the Jews living there relinquish their way of life.
Had that happened, monotheism itself would have been snuffed out. The stakes were great for the Jewish people, but each and every believing Muslim, Christian, and Jew who walks the earth today owes some measure of debt to the small remnant of a small people who resisted the mightiest military empire on earth.
In this podcast, Jonathan Silver is joined by the rabbi Mark Gottlieb to explore the deeper, theological meaning of Hanukkah. Their conversation centers on an essay by 20th-century Modern Orthodoxy’s leading thinker, the rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The essay, “The Everlasting Hanukkah,” can be found in a volume of Soloveitchik’s writings entitled Days of Deliverance.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
That brings us to something perhaps pretty prescient in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s vision and his theology. The real heroism of Hanukkah is not the political, it’s the spiritual. It’s the victory of not only the underdog, which is what people always did associate the Hanukkah heroes with—that status of outnumbered and outstrategized—but Rabbi Soloveitchik turns it on its head and suggests that it’s precisely in the traditional diasporic Jew, the galus jew, who perhaps would not stand up for political rights or would not be able to champion his cause on the battlefield, but would be able to, with pride in his worship, with pride in his identity as a child of God, with a sense of the uniqueness of the legacy of the Jewish people, that is what he or she would stand up for. Even in the face of death, in the face of extermination, in the face of persecutions, religious and otherwise, he or she would make a stand.
I think that’s what Rabbi Soloveitchik brings to this essay, which in some sense anticipates a moment in our contemporary culture; that sense of the purity of the victim here, and in many ways I’m reminded of Josh Mitchell’s new book, America Awakening, on what the theological underpinnings of identity politics and the culture wars are. In some sense, Rabbi Soloveitchik does contribute to the sense that what is suffering, but also pure and bold in terms of worship and commitment to the commandements, that is something that we stand to lose if all we do is champion that caricature or that cardboard cut out of the soldier or the warrior. I would argue that Rabbi Soloveitchik as a dialectical thinker has a place for that, he’s not dismissing that as a valid and in fact a necessary dimension in religious consciousness and religious life, but he’s simply attuned to the moment. That’s where the significance of when this drasha was delivered comes in, in the early 50s right after the birth of the state of Israel, I think that’s what’s so significant. He’s trying to fill out the picture of Judaism and not to be satisfied with sovereignty, but to push for something more than that.