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The Meaning of the Menorah

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.”

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.”

The afterlife of the Arch menorah is vivid both in the physical and intellectual worlds. It can be found decorating plastic toys, inked into ancient rabbinical manuscripts, in storefront windows at holiday time, and as noted on the seal of the State of Israel. It has, in short, penetrated the minds of Jews everywhere in multiple aspects, secular and religious and trivial and noble. The idea of Ahad Ha’am Fine cited is a useful lesson here: we have seen new meaning upon new meaning added, discussed, fought over, and revised for centuries upon centuries.

That we create the past as much as discover it, as Fine notes, seems to demand a countervailing responsibility to the ideas and faith of the future. The menorah, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for that essential enterprise.