Monday, December 14, 2009

Hanukkah - who is the "Red One" of Maoz Tzur?

On a happier note than the previous post, it is the fourth night of Hanukkah. I'm facing my menorah with its four lit candles (plus shamash) and thinking about the words to Maoz Tzur, the Hanukkah hymns. According to the Birnbaum siddur, it was composed in the 13th century (Philip Birnbaum, Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem [New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1969] 777). (The article in Wikipedia makes the same statement, based on Zunz).

The article on Maoz Tzur in refers to an article by Ismar Schorsch, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, published in the journal Judaism in the fall of 1988, entitled "A Meditation on Maoz Zur." Schorsch's family escaped from Germany on the first day of Hanukkah of 1938, after his father had been freed (he had been arrested on Kristallnacht). He writes that his family always sang the first five stanzas of Maoz Tzur with great fervor during their Hanukkah celebration (p. 459): "The poem's theme of redemption seemed to offer a poignant comment on our family's experience." They omitted the sixth stanza, however.

He records the history of the poem as follows (p. 460): "In its present form, Maoz Zur consists of six stanzas. Since the days of Leopold Zunz, the first five have been ascribed to an unknown German poet named Mordecai, who lived sometime before the middle of the thirteenth century and whose name survives as an acrostic formed by the first letter of each stanza." Schorsch writes that the poem is written as if shortly after the Maccabees had retaken the Temple from the Syrian Greeks. "The rescue from 'Greek' tyranny triggers a recollection of earlier cases when God's intervention redirects the course of Jewish history." These are in Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. The fifth stanza describes the "redemption at the time of the Hasmoneans."

The sixth stanza was composed later than the first five, and it is (p. 461) "an unabashed messianic plea for divine retribution upon Israel's Christian oppressors." He comments that it is often left untranslated in modern prayerbooks (like the Birnbaum siddur, which translates only the first five stanzas). The fifth stanza adds the final subjugator of the Jewish people - Edom (which in rabbinic interpretation is equated first with pagan and then with Christian Rome, thus becoming the code name for Christianity as a whole).

My rough translation (helped by Schorsch's discussion on p. 462):
Reveal your holy arm (cf. Isaiah 52:10) and bring near the day of salvation.
Avenge your servants against the evil kingdom.
The time has lengthened, and there is no end to the evil days.
Destroy the red one (Admon=Christianity) in the shadow of the cross,
and send forth the seven shepherds [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David]
This stanza is a more urgent request for divine salvation - rather than remembering the past salvation from danger and oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, it directly calls God to save his people from the Christians. Schorsch believes that this stanza was also written by an Ashkenazic Jew (p. 463), "stirred by the tremors and aftershocks of the Reformation," who believed that the Christian kingdom could only be overcome by direct divine intervention.

With this understanding of the meaning of the text, it's clear why Philip Birnbaum did not care to translate the stanza into English. Although he does not mention it in his entertaining introduction (full of jabs at earlier translations and editions of the prayerbook), he refrains from translating quite a number of potentially troublesome passages, particularly mystical ones, and in this case, one that could be viewed as an open attack upon Christianity, something that he presumably thought would be unwise even in the United States.


  1. Happy Hanukkah.
    So how do you feel about God never having rescued your people from "the red one" or from whoever was persecuting you?

  2. "Your people" - who are you identifying with?

  3. Who am *I* identifying with? My question was referring to you, not me. Aren't you Jewish?

  4. I'm wondering about what your agenda is. What point of view are you writing from?

  5. Hmmm, so much suspicion resulting from a simple question? "Agenda"? How did you figure out I even have one? I have a simple (to me at least it's simple) question, no "agenda" behind it, just genuine curiosity about your Jewish world-view on this matter.

    Do you have to know my point of view before you lay out yours? ( but I asked you first ;) )

    If my question really bothers you or makes you unconfortable I apologize for that, and I would understand if you wouldn't answer it. I just don't understand your suspicion and distrust, that's all.

    Or maybe you yourself don't have an answer, or are struggling to find one?

  6. John, I imagine that Rebecca is asking these questions because you sound suspiciously like a troll.

  7. Oh, I see. Well, I'm not a troll. Or is everybody asking difficult questions a troll? Or is this arbitrary label just a convenient way of justifying not answering them?

    By the way, how would you - if you are Jewish - respond to my question. If it's not too much of a sensitive issue for you. It's obvious it is one for Rebecca.

    Again, I'm just curious. I haven't got the faintest idea how any Jewish person in the 21st century would respond, but I can imagine a few responses:

    Some Jews have lost faith in God because of the horrors this nation has gone through, so they would answer that God did not intervene b/c he doesn't exist.

    Others probably would say they don't understand why, or... I don't know what.

    Ehrman was saying in one of his books how he thinks Jewish thought over this matter has evolved over the centuries:

    First, they thought they are punished by foreign nations because of the sins they committed against God.

    But when they returned from the Babylonian Exile, they continued to be persecuted, and was clear that even the good and faithful people in the nation were suffering at the hands of the gentiles.

    So apocalyptic views started to appear, basically saying that God would soon put an end to their suffering by destroying their enemies and restore Israel forever.

    When that didn't happen soon enough (the romans eventually destroyed the temple, deported them, etc), Jewish gnosticism began to flourish - the world is inherently bad, the creator is an evil inferior demiurg, etc, returning to the spiritual world is what matters, etc.

    But how does a 21st century Jew reason through all this?

  8. It looks like this is a very sensitive (tabu even) subject among Jews. Hmmm, I wonder why...

  9. John, if you want an honest answer, try asking the question without asides like, "I wonder why...." You sound hostile to me, that's why I didn't answer your questions.

    Where are you coming from religiously - are you a Christian? If so, of what sort? Or a student of comparative religion? I think it's pretty obvious from my blog where I'm coming from - try reading more than just this post. But I have no idea where you're coming from.

  10. Rebecca,
    why would you say "if you want an honest answer, try asking the question without asides like, "I wonder why....""? Did I say "I wonder why..." in my first four comments?

    I still don't understand how "I wonder why..." makes me sound hostile, or anything in my preceding posts, but it doesn't matter.

    Regarding these questions I asked you and your comment that "it's pretty obvious from my blog where I'm coming from", how is it relevant where you are coming from when you provided no answers? Maybe if you would have simply answered I would have been interested where you are coming from, to put your answers in a context.

    Also, when it comes to one who asks, what relevance does it make where he is coming from? Are you going to change your answer based on that? Are you going to change your answer if I were to be an atheist for instance? Or are you going to decide whether to respond or not based on what I am? For the life of me, I can't understand you.

    But anyway, since you require to know where I come from (though again, I can't understand why, and how my identity will confirm me being hostile or not), here you are: I'm a Christian, some would say liberal, interested in the critically-historical Jesus and second temple Judaism. I have no ax to grind and no interest in apologetic debates. I'm only curious about the Jewish perspective regarding the questions I asked above.

  11. Ask two Jews, get seven opinions.

  12. Batshua,
    I would love to get seven opinions from two Jews, but unfortunately it seems getting even only one opinion is highly improbable. I have asked another Jew and got no answers to my questions.

    It is clear to me that this subject is taboo among Jews. The only explanation I can think of is that it's a huge embarrassment.

    Unfortunately Rebecca has chosen to explain her reticence by accusing me of being hostile, having an agenda - an anti-Jewish one of course. That is certainly a convenient excuse, and an strange accusation considering that my message started with "Happy Hanukkah" and reflects no hostile attitude whatsoever.

    Judging from what she wrote here, she has an obvious anti-Christian bias and probably felt another member of the "Red One" is trying to torment another Jew.

  13. I was just telling you the truth. There isn't one solid opinion I adhere to in almost any aspect of spirituality, but just so you won't think I was teasing, I'll tell you how I feel today.

    *I* have never needed God to miraculously rescue me from anyone, because I was born and raised in the United States, where the worst persecution I ever experienced came from a fellow fourth grader, who tried to strangle me on the playground one day. Was it God who sent my classmate Matt to go pull on her trainer bra strap? I guess you could argue that, but I believe in free will.

    With regard to my ancestors, I don't generally believe that large, overt miracles happen in Our Time (whatever that means); rather, small miracles come in the form of good people wanting to stand up for what's right. That could be construed as the Hand of God, and there's no contradiction to say that, for example, the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust were both God's messengers on earth and people exercising their free will.

    Simon Wiesenthal said that For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing. I also believe that for good to flourish, it only requires good men to do SOMETHING.

    Does that make sense to you?

  14. Batshua,
    thank you for sharing that. And yes, that makes sense to me, no problems there.

    I also thought you were telling the truth (half-jokingly maybe) about the seven opinions :)

    So you personally don't necessarily believe that God (if he exists of course) gets involved in saving Jews or non-Jews from life threatening situations. If I understand you correctly, when deliverance occurs, it's because of humans that choose to act.

    If you don't mind me asking, do you believe, as ancient Jews did, that God intervened in the past and saved Israel from its enemies? Do you think he will do so in an ultimate way some time in the future? Why?

    I'm kind of struggling with this sort of questions myself, hence my curiosity about what others might think.

    Could you also expand on those seven opinions? How would they sound like?

  15. Seven was a semi-randomly chosen number; I wanted an odd number greater than three.

    I personally believe that the rapid advances in science in our times makes is hard for magic (and yes, in my mind, this includes things like miracles) to exist openly.

    I believe it is entirely possible that in the past there were great and awesome miracles that were undeniable. The human mind has a great capacity to rationalize and doubt, so in my mind, the argument often given that God is hidden because otherwise we wouldn't have free will doesn't hold water for me. I can't speak for how other folks' minds work, though.

    I don't generally concern myself too much with the future; I don't think about if/what afterlife would be like either. Although they're discussed in Judaism, there's not a lot of emphasis on them for a reason: we're about the here and the now, not what comes after.

    Just for the halibut, are seven opinions:

    1. God doesn't exist.
    2. God exists, but he doesn't care.
    3. God cares, but doesn't interact with the world against the laws of nature because it's bad for our sanity.
    4. God cares and sends miracles through human acts, "coincidences", and "acts of nature".
    5. God exists and cares, but is too busy doing other stuff, namely arranging soul mates.
    6. God performs miracles today. Haven't you noticed the advances that science has made?!
    7. God does perform miracles today.

  16. Thank you Batshua.

    If it's possible, and some great and undeniable miracles happened in the past, why don't they happen today?

    You said "although future is discussed in Judaism, there's not a lot of emphasis on it for a reason: we're about the here and the now, not what comes after". Ancient Jews were anxiously waiting for future deliverance from God; do you think Jews stopped doing so because that never materialized?

  17. Great and undeniable miracles can only happen in places and times where people are willing to accept them. If people DENY them, then they're not undeniable. This is why I mentioned the advances in sciences are taking the magic out of our world. Most people see the two as a firm dichotomy instead of two different systems that can live in harmony. If people are too analytical, magic isn't real, and miracles can't happen.

    I haven't given up on God delivering me, but … what exactly do I need to be delivered from? Poor healthcare plans? I mean, true, my life is not perfect, but I'm not in dire need of rescue either.

    I just don't *expect* to be delivered because I don't feel that I'm in a situation that warrants it.

    Do I believe that at some future point it's possible that Jews will need saving again and God will deliver them? Sure. But I think the fact that we're still here proves that God hasn't abandoned us; neither has mankind.