Light in the Darkness

Another important part of the “grout,” at least where the Arch menorah is concerned, is an understanding of the delicate and complicated relationship between the Roman Empire and the Jews at the end of the first millennium BCE immediately before the suppression of the Great Revolt. “If the Empire is crumbling in the year 66,” Fine says, “ it’s because they've had four emperors in the same year, starting with Nero; the Dacians in Hungary and the Gauls in France and the Egyptians have all been watching these Judeans fight for eight years, so the Romans damn well better win, or their empire is in real danger. This is a very, very complex pot of soup. Remember, there were Jews who, if they lived today, we'd look at them and think they were Taliban.”

The Jews themselves were in a similarly ambiguous and complex position.  “Sitting looking at Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 were Titus and his military entourage, which,” notes Fine, “included a Jewish general from Alexandria, whose uncle was Philo the philosopher. We may paint it as ‘us versus them’ in a really intense way, but there were Jewish cities in Israel that worked hard not to get into the war. Inside Jerusalem, the debate over what to do about these folks was huge. Consider the massacres and the starvations caused, apparently, by the Zealots who decided, when everyone's in Jerusalem for Passover, it was a good time to raid Ein Gedi and take whatever they wanted. We're dealing with a very complex moment. The fact that Titus could have a Jewish girlfriend, Bernice, is astonishing.”

This intertwining of Roman and Jew continues, Fine points out, even after the victory of Titus. “Romans don't kill gods, they invite them into the system. Within short order, Judaism was putting itself back together again and the Romans were supporting people who could help them do it. By the end of the next century, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah, is friends with an Emperor named Antoninus — at least according to legend.” There are echoes of this in other legends that persisted into the 20th Century, legends stating that the menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus itself was to be found somewhere in Rome — namely in a secret collection in the Vatican. How did this legend arise? “People were going to Rome, to the Vatican, to look at Hebrew books,” says Fine. “Lots of good scholars were being allowed from Eastern Europe to go into the Vatican to look at books. There was another rabbi going off to Naples to look at how cuttlefish grow, so that he could figure out what the blue dye that was used in the Temple looked like. There were rabbis, Eastern European Hasidic rabbis, taking trains to Vienna. There was one who went to Vienna to be shrunk by the students of Freud. That was, by the way, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. There's all this communication, all these rabbis, going from place to place and the question came up, ‘So, if you're going to Rome, where's the menorah?’ ‘Well, the Vatican has books. It has lots of Jewish stuff that was found in the catacombs, it has images of menorahs. It's even decorated with images of the menorah. They must have it.'"

Through all this the menorah shines, even if its physical form has been degraded and destroyed after the victory of Titus. Fine noted that “the value of the menorah in visual terms is that you can just break it and break it and break it and still recognize it, which you could never do with the table of the showbread, but you can do with a cross and a crescent. For a menorah, all you need is three branches next to each other, slightly curved, and you know you've got it. From a visual place, his thing has enormous capacity to envelop ideas.”

The ideas that it envelops, according to Fine, are profound and by no means static. He cites the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am. “In one of his polemics against European reform,” Fine observes, “he said that you don't throw away forms of Judaism. Rather, every generation has to put new meaning into the old forms. There's a lot to that. Every generation puts itself into the menorah and sees itself through it, whether they be kabbalists or Herod the Great's people. They're all looking at this thing and writing about it.”

A number of dominant themes nonetheless emerge from this long tradition of intellectual involvement with the menorah. One of them, unsurprisingly, centers around light as a physical phenomenon. “Everybody likes light,” Fine reminds us.  “After all, at the end of December, no matter who you are, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, it's getting really dark. It’s hard for us to understand how powerful the act of kindling a light is because we can just push a button. Remember, too, that the heavenly lights were so much closer because ancient Jews didn't have the light pollution that we have. It was a big deal to light candles for the Sabbath and be up after dark. Karaites and Samaritans don't do that. They go to sleep. Light is a basic function that we no longer pay attention to, but in synagogue liturgy to this day there's a blessing for the people who provide light for the illumination of the room. And once we have established that light is one of those basic human things, the question is: what does it mean to light lights in front of God (which is what the menorah is)? In explaining this thing, Philo of Alexandria — followed by Josephus and then some late midrashim and liturgical poems from the 5th and 6th Century — describe the menorah as the eyes of God, with each of the lamps on top representing the visible planets and the sun and the moon.”

This allegorical lesson is central to the menorah’s power, in Fine’s understanding. “We're dealing with an icon that just sort of draws everything together in the tabernacle, located in the Temple that is itself the center of the world. We can see how this is growing that imagery and pulling it into the house, so where on Hanukkah or on Shabbat or for memorial candle lightings or for any of those times when light is essential, we remember who created it.”