Those chocolate Judah Maccabees are so cute (even if they might be Santas on the inside). But if we turn to the First Book of Maccabees, Judah himself was not necessarily so cute. In the third chapter, we read:
“He brought glory to his people, and put on his breastplate like a giant. He armed himself with weapons of war; he fought battles and protected the camp with his sword. In his deeds he was like a lion, like a young lion roaring for prey. He pursued the wicked, hunting them out, and those who troubled his people he destroyed by fire (I Maccabees 3:3-5).”
And in the major liturgical addition to our worship on Hanukkah, we do not celebrate Judah’s righteousness, good looks or affability. We thank God for the fact that “the strong were delivered into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” In other words, we praise Judah’s military expertise. (See the Al Ha-Nissim prayer.)
So, starting Sunday at sundown, we Jews will spend eight days celebrating Judah Maccabee’s combat skills. Sure, we’ll talk about jugs of oil and miracles, mostly because the ancient rabbis were uncomfortable with a holiday that focused solely on a military victory. However, if it weren’t for Judah’s ability to swing the sword, I doubt very highly that we’d have gotten to the oil part of the story.
I share this with you not to diminish our Hanukkah celebration in any way. Instead, I am trying to remind us all that Judaism is not inherently opposed to self-defense and the possession of weapons. Quite the opposite, it is something we celebrate. Further, anyone who spends any time at all in the modern state of Israel very quickly grows accustomed to the sight of Israeli soldiers – the modern-day heirs to the Maccabean tradition – toting around their automatic weapons.
Judaism sees self-defense as a sacred obligation. There is no greater mitzvah than the preservation of human life. However, with obligations come responsibilities and restrictions. Even when it comes to something beautiful and enjoyable, Judaism puts limitations on our urges and behaviors. Eating, for example, is a good and necessary thing. It is the most basic way in which we preserve life. Yet, Judaism puts restrictions on eating – kashrut. Similarly, unlike some other faith traditions, Judaism sees sexuality as a good thing. There would be no life to protect without it. However, we similarly place limitations on sexuality – with whom and when we may engage in a sexual relationship.
So, when it comes to the obligation for self-defense and the possession of weapons, there must also be some boundaries. There must a balance between the desire to protect our own lives and the preservation of other lives. Somehow, sadly, in this country we are horribly off-balance. We have placed so much emphasis on an individual’s right to self-defense that we have forgotten our obligation to protect the lives of everyone else around that individual. We have to figure out a way to correct that.
Judaism, at its core, is not a system of extremes. It is a practical legal tradition that tries to bring balance into the lives of its adherents. It seems to me that such balance would be a wonderful Hanukkah gift to offer to this country.