Friday, March 24th, 2017

מי לה’ אלי?: Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln… The Chanukah Version by Gidon Rothstein

December 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts

The full line of the quip in the title goes, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” and is meant to wryly note some people’s ability to miss the significance of an event—the assassination of a President, in that case– and move on to trivial matters.  I think it a point to keep in mind as we consider the Hanukkah story this year.

In the comfortable version we tell ourselves, the rightness of Mattityahu’s decision was clear, the heroes joined him, and victory was swift and obviously miraculous. Sadly, real life rarely operates that way.  By reviewing the story a little more realistically, we can approach this year’s observances with greater awareness of what it would mean to fully embrace the holiday’s message.

 מי לה’ אלי? A Call To Danger, A Call to Trouble

Mattityahu, we are told, became enraged when a representative of Antiochus succeeded at securing a Jewish volunteer to offer a sacrifice to an idol.  He killed the Jew and the non-Jew, and called out מי לה’ אלי, who is for God, come to me, and, with his five sons and a small band of like-minded fellows, fled into the mountains to begin the rebellion.

 Let us leave them there to recall, for a moment, the first occasion when that call was issued.  When Moshe Rabbenu came down from Sinai and saw the Golden Calf, he, too, called out מי לה’ אלי, and the entire tribe of Levi came to his side. 

In that incident, as well, I think we often ignore the human realities (personal disclosure: I have come at some of these same questions using fiction, in “You Can’t Change Human Nature” a story in my collection Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel).  The tribe of Levi was, as we are told later in the Torah, one of the smaller tribes of the nation.  While in the end the Levites only had to kill those who publicly worshiped the Calf—three thousand men—they could not know, when Moshe issued his call, how the rest of the nation would react.  The other Jews had not participated in the worship, perhaps, but they had also not protested it. 

Such people—if we can read our times back into the desert’s, at least as a possibility—could easily have decided that death was an inhumane reaction to the sins these people committed.  One group might, for example, have argued that the choice of whether to worship idols or not belonged to those people, and it was not the Levites’ place to tell them otherwise.

More likely, we could imagine people agreeing that they should not have acted in that way, but nonetheless objected to the harshness of death, especially when administered immediately, without the ordinary and vital level of legal process and extended consideration received by other defendants.  Such people could easily decry the Levites as acting rashly and inappropriately.  Or the Levites might have met the opposition of those who argued that the sin was understandable in the context of Moshe’s absence, that it should not be seen as full idol worship, and therefore should not lead to that most final of penalties.

Or variations of same.  All told, the point is, the tribe of Levi had every reason to expect that they would not only have to contend with the relatively small group of sinners about to be put to death, but to broader national concern about how to respond to an admitted failure in the nation’s relationship to God.

Ignoring the Bonds of Family

Complicating the Levites’ position, they would have had to fight their war on behalf of restoring the Jewish people’s relationship with God not only with enemies, but with friends and family members, as Moshe Rabbenu testifies later in the Torah. 

At least once, a Levi had to kill a grandparent (in Hazal’s understanding), a maternal half-brother, a grandchild.  And when they did this, it is not only that we are supposed to recognize and admire their fidelity to God for doing so, I believe we are also supposed to recognize how difficult it was for them.  If Levites were simply cold people with no familial feeling, their actions might be admirable in some sense, but not such easy guides for us in our lives. When Moshe Rabbenu notes their ability to put aside family connections in the name of serving God—when necessary—it only makes sense to praise them this way if those connections were strong and meaningful.

מי לה’ אלי in Mattityahu’s Time: Stripping Away the Romance

Returning to Mattityahu in Modiin, let us remember what he and his sons gave up to spark this rebellion, the price their call of מי לה’ אלי demanded of them and whoever joined them.  From the fact that at least one Jew was willing to offer the sacrifice, and the historical reality that there were many Hellenists in the Maccabees’ time, we are led to realize that Mattityahu did not only stand up for what he knew to be right, he did so in the face of enormous social pressure.  It wasn’t obvious that killing a non-Jew (and a Jew) was the right action, especially given the reprisals it was sure to bring; it clearly wasn’t obvious that running into the hills to try to rebel against a powerful army was sensible in any way.

Commentators and pundits of the time would likely have shaken their heads in disbelief at the insanity of a Mattityahu putting not only himself but his children and grandchildren in danger.  There’s every reason to suppose that Mattityahu and his family knew Hellenists, or moderate Hellenists, and had had at least an uneasy friendship to that point.  For the Maccabees to take off, they had to leave behind any sense of commonality with these people.

And they not only were in danger, they many of them died in the course of this rebellion.  We speak happily of the few who defeated the many, as we should, but the victory did not come without loss and death, nor did Mattityahu and his sons expect otherwise. 

The call of מי לה’ אלי, in other words, was not a romantic call to swift action, immediately rewarded with public acclaim. It was, in both instances, a call to an uncertain future, with great danger, justified only because it was absolutely right.  As we try to place ourselves in their shoes, we should understand that those shoes involved multiple sacrifices, social, physical, economic, and, for many, their very lives.

A Question of Timing

In each of those instances, of course, the immediate question was how to react to an incident of public idol-worship; we might try to absolve ourselves of the need to apply this to our lives by claiming that only such a deep breach of Jewish morals and mores justifies such extreme action.  The story of Pinchas, and the halachot of קנאים פוגעים בו, that the zealous may kill certain people without benefit of court or legal process, shows that there are at least some other examples.

The Pinchas story makes most sense in light of the Talmud’s understanding that אלוקיהם של אלו שונא זימה הוא, that God hates, as it were, sexual immorality, and that Pinchas had the right to respond to public fornication in such a way.  That itself, it seems to me, would be a surprise to many today, who would argue instead for understanding and gentle treatment even of those who publicly and knowingly flout Jewish standards of sexual propriety.

But that is too vexed a topic to allow for rational discussion, so let me instead note a statement by R. Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah, and then pose it as a thought experiment.  Rabbenu Yonah, III;59, asserts that anyone who does not hold fast to the dispute (מחזיק במחלוקת) with those who follow an improper path is punished with the punishment of those committing those sins; later in the paragraph, he says that anyone who cares about God will be ready to sacrifice himself for the cause (in context, we are left to presume that this sacrifice might be not only one’s life, but one’s social comfort or prestige).

And now, the thought experiment: On what issues would we feel the need to react radically, to hear the call of מי לה’ אלי and rally around that flag, and on what would we feel that we could simply watch the rest of the play, as in the question to Mrs. Lincoln?

This question has been asked before, and has yet to secure the response it deserves.  In the early 1900s, when some religious leaders found Zionism a movement worth attaching to, few actual observant Jews felt moved enough to actually uproot themselves to return to Israel.  I have often tried to imagine how the State of Israel today would look, from a religious perspective, if but a few thousand more observant Jews had joined the many nonobservant pioneers in resettling new sections of the Land.

But perhaps that is, in fact, too radical; there are many reasons to feel chained to the Exile, to feel unable to abandon friends and family to move to Israel.  Let me instead note one personal example, that seems to me even more basic—and even more relevant to the complications of heeding a call to be “for God,” with the hope that my involvement has not clouded my judgment of the matter. 

What Does It Mean To Be “For God”?

I spent some time earlier this year working on a project I called the Mission of Orthodoxy, which I posted weekly at  I argued that there is a basic, fundamental mission to Orthodoxy, clearly laid out in sources known to all, that is or should be unequivocally agreed-upon in all segments of Orthodoxy.  To be clear: I did not argue that I had come up with a core mission of Judaism by my clever reading of sources; I argued that a clear-eyed reading of well-known and basic texts would lead to a realization that halachic Orthodoxy means something not quite the same as what is practiced today.

The series sparked some interest, and some readers were enthusiastic about part or all of it.  Others disagreed with some of my claims, for a variety of reasons.  Neither of those groups are relevant to this discussion.  What is relevant is when I met simple rejection of my premise, without any engagement with the sources.

These were people (more than one) who said, sometimes in so many words, “I want Orthodoxy to be what I’ve always thought it was” or “…what I want it to be.”  It did not matter to them whether I had legitimate and unarguable sources for my claims, they were uninterested. Similarly, a friend recently told me of broaching this notion of a mission to Orthodoxy, only to be told—by committed, concerned students—that they wanted to find their own meaning within the religion, to emphasize the practices they personally found most meaningful, not any system-imposed sense of mission.

That is one example where I disagreed with the people on the other side of the story, but I have no reason to assume there aren’t similar weaknesses in my own life, which brings us back to the question of Hanukkah and Mrs. Lincoln. Faced with an assassination of a president, we all assume we wouldn’t be so obtuse as to still focus on how the play was.  Perhaps; but if we were faced with a Mattityahu, or a Moshe Rabbenu, asking us to risk life, limb, and—perhaps worse— social banishment, how would we respond? 

Would we be able to stand up for a principle that, in the context of the time, was not so clear? Because, remember, if all already agreed with Moshe Rabbenu or Mattityahu about the issue, there would have been no need for the call; it is only when a principle, whatever principle, is endangered enough that many people already have gone the other way, that we get faced with the choices of Hanukkah.

So as we light our candles this year, as we open our presents, eat our sufganiyot or our latkes, one question I hope we ask ourselves is: do we shoulder the legacy of the Maccabees? Do we recall the importance, for Jews, of standing up for our principles precisely when it is most difficult to do so, when those around us will see us as extremists or worse for so doing?  And, on the other hand, do we know when it is time to return to ordinary life, to clean the Temple, return the service to its ordinary functioning, and going back to the world as it was? I hope we do, and that we all have a Happy Hanukkah.

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