The True Spirit of Hanukkah

Mordecai Kaplan founded The Reconstructionist in 1935 to popularize his thought and to show its relevance to issues facing American Jews. Accordingly, each issue of the magazine opened with a series of editorials in which current events were analyzed from the standpoint of Reconstructionism. 

The editorial line was formulated collectively by the Editorial Board, which consisted primarily of Reform and Conservative rabbis and of educators sympathetic to Kaplan’s view. Discussions could be long, intense, and heated, but a consensus generally emerged. The editorial was then assigned for writing to the board member with the greatest expertise in the subject addressed.

The editorial excerpted below is from the December 1st, 1950 issue of the magazine. Kaplan was still chair of the Editorial Board; Ira Eisenstein the Associate chair and Eugene Kohn, the managing editor.

Kaplan embraced Zionism early in his career, and his approach was significantly influenced by Achad Ha-Am (Asher Ginsburg) who envisioned the creation in Zion of a Jewish cultural center. Full state power was not essential to the flourishing of such a center, and The Reconstructionist did not originally advocate the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but spoke ambiguously of “the establishment of a cooperative commonwealth” that “would enable Jewish civilization so to root itself in the soil of Palestine as to make of the land the cultural center for Israel’s intellectual and spiritual rebirth.”

This hesitance to call for a Jewish state was motivated, in part, by disappointment with the realities of the nation-state. Yet The Reconstructionist viewed the founding of the state in 1948 “as a miracle of history, a great vindication of faith in the power of an idea.” The editors remained, however, alert to the dangers of statehood; a stance that is readily apparent in this Hanukkah editorial. Its message is especially relevant today as we witness the formation of the most right-wing nationalist government ever to rule the modern state of Israel. 

–Dr. Eric Caplan


We do not do justice to the spirit of Hanukkah, if we regard it as the celebration of either a military or political achievement primarily. That is not what it has meant in Jewish tradition. The date chosen for the celebration and the ritual by which it is observed commemorate neither a triumph on the battlefield nor the achievement of independent statehood. They commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been polluted by the pagan rites performed in it by order of the Grego-Syrian rules…. 

The glorification of martial valor and national prestige and power are alien to the Jewish spiritual tradition. That was not the spirt in which Mattathias rallied his sons and his compatriots to resist the encroachment of the Syrians on their religious liberty. Nor was it the spirit in which our halutzim [pioneers] came to Eretz Yisrael to make of the wilderness a habitable homeland for a people denied the opportunity elsewhere to develop its own way of life. 

But recently there have been symptoms of an aberration from the exalted aims which the original pioneers had set. Wars always tend to develop a spirit of militarism. The tragic Hitler episode, followed by the brutal policy of Britain toward the refugees from Hitler’s genocide, caused a deep trauma in the soul of many of the Jews in Israel. The novelty of statehood has tended to afford a childish delight in the display of its trappings. The tendency to jingoism and chauvinism is understandable, but it is nonetheless mischievous….

The observance of Hanukkah… admonishes us to regard the state and the forces necessary to defend it as means, not ends. And “us” includes American Jews, who need that message no less than Israelis….

[Jewish tradition] look[s] upon the state primarily as a means to achieving social justice and individual freedom and security, and upon even defensive warfare as, at best, a necessary evil until such a time as “nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall not learn war any more.” We honor the loyalty, intelligence, and heroism by which Israel has achieved its statehood and independence, and we hope and pray that these achievements may be instrumental in establishing in Israel a civilization that will manifest the glory of God by emphasizing the humanity of man. 

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