Blog: The Politics of Hope

Rededicating the Temple – A Hanukah Homily

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The Jewish festival of Hanukah is celebrated this year on December 11-19th. The Hebrew word refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after driving out the Seleucid Greek occupiers in 165 BCE. It’s one of the most joyful holidays in the Jewish calendar, in which we celebrate our commitment to the values of freedom and human rights that have given us strength and resilience as a people. Today, the Jewish people face a challenge equal to or greater than the crisis we faced in the Palestine of 2000 years ago. The circumstances, however, are reversed: today, it is the Jewish people who are the occupiers. And the threat to our survival, now that we are the ones in power, concerns the fate of those same enduring and sustaining values.

As a Jew born in 1948, I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation and redeemed my people from the suffering of millennia. Over the years, living for a time in Israel and visiting frequently, I became increasingly concerned about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and about its illegal settlement activity. Still, I held to the Zionist narrative: Israel’s militarism and expansionism were the price of security. Then I went to the West Bank, Israeli occupied Palestine. I saw the separation wall and knew it was not for defense. I saw the damage inflicted by the checkpoints on Palestinian life and on the souls and psyches of my Jewish cousins in uniform. I saw the Jewish-only settlements and the restricted roads and I witnessed the vicious acts of ideological Jewish settlers. I learned that the events of 1948, what I had been taught to call the War of Liberation, was for Palestinians the Nakba, Arabic for the Catastrophe: the expulsion of three quarters of a million people from their villages, cities and farms.

When I returned home and began to speak about justice for Palestine as the only path to peace, I found that Christians understood my message very well. But they felt constrained from speaking out for two reasons: 1) their sense that the Jewish people were owed a state because of their history of suffering and 2) their feeling of responsibility for that suffering. In fact, I discovered that for Christians, a new theology had grown up after WW II in an effort to reconcile with the Jews and to atone for the evil of anti-Semitism. This theology exalted the Jews as God’s elect and lauded our quest for safety and self determination. The Jews were no longer condemned to wander the earth. In fact, we were reinstated as God’s elect — the original covenant between God and Abraham was in force. Christianity’s correction of the anti-Judaism is in itself laudable – but there is a problem with this new theology: it includes a real estate contract. Christians were now being asked to support the superior right of the Jewish people to the territory of historic Palestine.

Examples abound of this tendency among contemporary Christian theologians. James Carroll writes in Constantine’s Sword: “The God of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Church, is the God of Israel. The Jews remain the chosen people of God. And with this comes the Land.” In a May 2009 article, John Pawlikowski, a progressive Catholic theologian, wrote that the Vatican’s 1993 recognition of the State of Israel was pivotal in correcting Christianity’s historic anti-Judaism. With that act, he wrote, “the coffin on displacement/perpetual wandering theology had been finally sealed.” I find this an astonishing argument: recognizing the Jewish state corrects Christian theology! Just as astonishing, Palikowski takes exception to a fundamental feature of Christianity: its lifting of the land out of the original tribal context of the Abrahamic covenant. In the original Christian revisioning, Jerusalem became a symbol of a new world order in which God’s love was available to all of humankind. But Pawlikowski was now maintaining that Christianity’s spiritualization of the land repudiated God’s covenant with the Jews and deprived us of our birthright! We have to be very concerned about this — generations of mainstream pastors and theologians have been educated in versions of this revised theology. The Christian impulse for reconciliation has morphed into theological support for an anachronistic, ethnic-nationalist ideology that has hijacked Judaism, continues to fuel global conflict, and has produced one of the most egregious, systematic and longstanding violations of human rights in the world today.

Christians today talk about the need to honor the deep Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. But as a Jew I must consider the distinction between loving a land and claiming it as my birthright. When you claim a superior right to a territory shared by others, whether that claim is made on religious or political grounds, you head straight for disaster, which is exactly what the Jewish people are confronting in the State of Israel today: not only political, but cultural, psychological, and spiritual. As Jews we need to take a hard look at our willingness to invoke the land clause of the covenant. The theology of the land, like that of election or any other aspect of scripture, must be open to conversation with history. As theologian Harvey Cox said in the recent World Council of Churches conference in Bern, Switzerland:

“What does the Bible mean by ‘promised land’? How has the term been hijacked and used for various political reasons, when maybe that is not the significance of the texts at all? Ancient Israel is often confused with modern Israel. They are not the same. The Jewish people and the modern State of Israel, though they overlap in certain ways, are not the same, and therefore we have to be thoughtful and self-critical about how that theme is dealt with.”

Happily, Harvey Cox’s statement in Bern is only one example of how some scholars are beginning to understand the parallels between our own time and the situation of the Palestinians (i.e. the Jews) of Jesus’ time. They see the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to tyranny. Jesus was confronting the evil of the Roman Empire. Through his actions and his sayings, he was telling his people what was required to bring about the Kingdom of God. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Yes! Go! Walk where Jesus walked! For you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw. You will see land taken through illegal laws and the tread of soldier’s boots. You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life. But you will also see nonviolent resistance: in demonstrations against the separation wall, in families of Palestinians and Jews who have lost children to the conflict coming together and refusing to be enemies, and in farmers who refuse to abandon their land, even as the walls go up, the restrictions on movement tighten, and the everyday harassment and violence against them intensifies.

I know that for Christians in the U.S. today, calling Israel to account puts half a century of interfaith reconciliation at risk. Institutional, personal and family relationships are on the line. But the church must fulfill its historic calling to stand for justice for all the peoples of the earth. And we Jews must reclaim our prophetic tradition. In our Hanukah liturgy, we thank God for “standing by your people in their time of trouble…achieving great victories and deliverance.” Indeed, we are in need of deliverance — but today, as the anniversary of the bombardment of Gaza approaches, it is from our reliance on violence and military force as a solution to our suffering that we need to be rescued. Christianity has struggled to overcome the creedal rigidity and triumphalism that has plagued it since the time of Constantine. It is to our own work of reformation that we Jews must dedicate ourselves in this Hanukah season.


  1. Claire Matthews said,

    December 13, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    Great article, Mark, especially in light of David Brooks recent reflections on Hanakkuh. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Pauline Coffman said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    Mark, Thanks for wading into this deep pit of theological problems and guilt. Many of us have come to realize that nothing is solved by relying on a mythical definition of history or wishful thinking. I especially appreciate your calling us back to the justice focus of the Hebrew prophets. That’s where we should be focusing today…as Jews, as Christians, and as Muslims–who share in this sad situation called Israel/Palestine.

  3. Roy Hayes said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Thank you for this article. Keep them coming. I’m glad you’ve got a blog. I was glad to hear that you’re to be one of the speakers at Sabeel’s Conference in Seattle in February. Peace, Roy

  4. Jonah said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 11:54 pm

    I appreciate your sentiments.

    However, I am concerned about the use of language.

    Seems to me the Palestinian people are the Semitic people.

    Most Jews and in particular Israeli’s are of European stock!

    The state of Israel’s actions promote anti-Jewish sentiments. The state of Israel by its actions is anti-Semitic!

    One of the methods to exterminate a race is to take away their sense of who they are…

  5. Michael Korn said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    check out Israel Shamir’s article on The Wall:

    also consider these surprising ideas:

    1. the Hashmonean priests who led the Chanuka revolt were religious fanatics. they opposed not only Greek religious edicts but everything about Greek secular culture, including schools, theatre, and sports. they were akin to a kind of Jewish “Taliban”

    2. this same family forcibly converted Edomites to Judaism and intermarried with them, producing the Herodian dynasty, probably the most wicked and corrupt leaders in all of ancient Israel. This family rebuilt the Jewish Temple which became the anti Christ symbol par excellence against which Jesus fought and murdered thousands of Jews, including their own family members.

    3. the Western Wall that Jews revere is the remains of the Temple reconstruction by Herod the Great and Herod Antipas, the former of whom murdered his own wives and children, along with countless others, including the babes in Bethlehem, and the latter of whom murdered John the Baptist, the greatest Old Testament prophet according to Jesus.

    4. isn’t it ironic that Jews revere a wall built by a psychopathic murdering Edomite usurper of David’s throne, but they revile Jesus of Nazareth, David’s true heir and Savior of the world!

    5. Chanuka does not celebrate freedom for all of mankind. It is a narrow and bigotted celebration of religious extremism and nostalgia for a Temple that Jesus condemned to destruction and to be replaced by a brotherhood of men and women who would worship God in spirit and in truth.

    Shalom waSalaam

  6. Lee Daneker said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Great post. Do you know about J-Street? If not, you should:

  7. Rededicating the Temple – A Hanukah Homily « OntheWilderSide said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    […] Rededicating the Temple – A Hanukah Homily Posted on December 17, 2009 by wilderside from Mark  Braverman […]

  8. Rev. David R. Froemming said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Speaking of the Zionist narrative, I am still amazed at the historical work that Edwin Black did in his book “The Transfer Agreement” – (Ha ‘avara). So far, I have not heard his work discussed in a larger context. Perhaps at some time, it will be something you can work off in the future. I think the work is important with regard to helping us re-imagine, and re-think history, as it clearly exposes the problem with following an ideology, or trying to exploit an ideology, to achieve an end.

  9. BRAVERMAN: Rededicating the temple – a Hanukah Homily said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    […] by Mark Braverman –  13 December 2009 […]

  10. Ludwik Sujkowski said,

    May 17, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    Hello Mark,

    Excellent work. The following has not been strong enough yet. Jews and American Jews in particular will need to decide if, not only for the sake of their own heritage and respect by other nations, but also for the sake of Israel’s survival as a state, they should take a more united stand against Israeli apartheid policies. In my view, on a long run, your approach should work better for the Jewish people than Israeli policies against Palestinians.

    Historically no clear statehood seemed to have existed in this region, governed by either Jews or Palestinians. These territories were occupied by the ancient Egypt, Rome, Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires and recently, before establishing the state of Israel, by the British. Temporary kingdoms both Jewish and Philistine have existed in the past, but they have not survived the pressures by the foreign powers. Both ancient Jews and Philistines were Semitic tribes but contemporary Israel and Palestine do not necessarily reflect their ethnic origin, considering more recent influx of European Jews and Arabs.

    All people inhabiting these territories have suffered enough under foreign occupations of the past and present, and most certainly both have justified right to their own country. Divisions between Jews and Palestinians probably originated from the policies of foreign powers. It will probably take generations of bitter fighting of one another before both sides will finally understand that the out – of – the box solution lies in one democratic state for all people living in what is now Israel and its occupied territories.

  11. Ben Duarte said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    Enjoyable article. I enjoy these topics. What will be the outcome of these issues? What is the goal
    of the Jewish people in Israel? I also found it interesting to adjudicate between ancient and modern Israel. Is there significant reasons to see a difference here? Is there a difference between ancient and modern Jews? (In reference to what they believe in).


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