Light in the Darkness

The menorah — a candelabrum used now to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah and once to light the Temple in Jerusalem — is a symbol of Judaism as recognizable as the Star of David, and indeed as linked with the religion as the cross is with Christianity and the crescent is with Islam.

It is also, according to Yeshiva University’s Professor Steven Fine, the religious symbol with the longest unbroken history of use — making the cross and the crescent look like relative youngsters in comparison. For Fine, that extreme longevity made it the ideal subject to trace a thread of meaning for Jews and others from the remotest past up to the present, and using it as a lens to examine Judaism through history from within and from without, in its religious and its cultural aspects. That book, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel, draws together the copious research Fine did into the candelabrum in an attempt to — so to speak — illuminate some of the darker areas of Jewish history.

Fine’s professional involvement with the history and historiography of the menorah began with his work as the director of the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project, a groundbreaking effort to reconstruct that Roman monument of victory over Jewish rebellion as fully as possible — colors included.

“I was thinking about all of this color as I was walking through a museum in Istanbul,” Fine tells us, “where I saw the first example of a colorized object. It was a sarcophagus of Alexander, there's a few of those in the world. I looked at it and thought, ‘Well, that's cool,’ and didn't think much about it. Then I realized that all over Europe there were these exhibitions going up, and then in the United States, of colorization of Roman stuff and this was new. At some point I was invited by a friend at a Virginia museum to be part of a team that was colorizing a statue of Caligula. We're sitting at lunch and I said, ‘Guys, do you think that we could possibly do the Arch of Titus?’”

The Arch, as noted, commemorates a crucial moment in the history of Europe and the Near and Middle East. The eponymous Roman emperor erected the Arch to commemorate his successful squelching, while still a general, of the so-called Great Revolt, a years-long period of Judean insurrection against Roman rule. Titus helped managed the Roman campaigns that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple and the siege of Masada, and the Arch held potent meaning for both Romans and for Judaeans and their modern descendants. The effort to restore the Arch digitally sparked anew an old interest of Fine’s: the menorah. The Arch features one being carried away by a group of men. Scholars have debated whether these are Roman soldiers carrying it in triumph — or the defeated Jews themselves. The Arch menorah now features, Fine notes, among the civic symbols of the state of Israel: “In 1949 when they took this Arch of Titus menorah and made it the symbol of the State of Israel, literally bringing the menorah home in the ideology. And they called the state seal a symbol. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were treating it a whole lot differently than one would treat another national seal, and I think it was intentional.”

Decades later, this menorah exerted a powerful pull on Fine, but it exuded as well a powerful aura of the sacred. As he tells us, “I was up there, right next to it, and I couldn't get myself to put my finger on it. No one would have stopped me. I don't know why. I couldn't.” And this despite the fact that Fine had been personally interested in menorahs for a long time.  He is an admirer of the novelist Stefan Zweig’s book on the subject, THE BURIED CANDELABRUM, and he has great sympathy for Zweig personally: “He's the horrible story of what happened to the Jew who really tried to be central to the culture, the general culture. His death is pitiful.” And he recalled for us his days as a high schooler when he had a poster with a menorah on the wall of his bedroom — “put out by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Fine remembers. It bore a slogan: Our Past Illuminates our Future (with echoes of the thought that went into creating Israel’s state seal).

After working on the Arch of Titus, Fine, as he puts it, “tired of just writing about the ancient world, because it had become clear to me that writing about the ancient world with so few sources, we're filling the space between the ancient sources and ourselves with our own selves. That's good historiography: to recognize what you're doing with these things. But the spaces between — I like to use the metaphor of a mosaic — the spaces between the tesserae of the individual stones of evidence are so broad that you have to put a lot of grout in between. Then the question is: what is that grout?”

One part, of course, is understanding the time-shrouded provenance of the menorah as ritual object. “It first appears in the Book of Genesis,” Fine says, “where there's a description of this very complex thing. If you actually read the words, you'll know that — unless you lived in the time that the book was written — you're not going to understand what's written there. You need to see something. That's why the last line of the description is: and make it the way you see it. It's clear that the obsessive repetition of words just isn't enough. We have this object described there in the tabernacle in the desert with Moses. Then we have more of these lamps, 10 of them, in the Temple of Solomon. In the Second Temple, the first image that we actually have of it is from the last of the Hasmonean kings, the last Maccabean king, as he's losing out to Herod the Great. It looks like what you'd expect it to look like.”