Chanukah and Separation of Church and State

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Separation of Church and State is widely regarded as a modern concept. For most of the world this is an accurate assessment. In some places in the world there remains no separation. What I mean by a separation between church and state is that quite simply there are two different and exclusive bodies that legislate religion and politics. Political leadership is vested in one person or group and religious considerations are seen to by a different person or group.

In the United States, I believe separation of church and state is a misnomer. It’s not that there is a separation as much as the state has no opinion on religion. I think that a truer version of a separation between church and state originated with ancient Judaism.

The law was that the political leadership of the Jewish people flowed through the Davidic family of the tribe of Judah. The religious leaders in ancient Israel were the priests and the Levites who were are members of the tribe of Levi. These two groups were separate. This separation of powers was to ensure that no group had absolute power. It created a balance between political and domestic interests and religious interests. It was a good system and I believe the model for today’s separation.

The story of Chanukah tells the tale of the Hasmonean family rebelling against the oppressive Seleucid-Greeks. This family was a priestly family. They sough to restore honor and holiness to the Temple. They also sought political autonomy from the Seleucid-Greeks.

They won both.

At that moment that they won they should have appointed a Davidic heir to the throne. But they failed to do so. A Hasmonean was anointed king and this began a slow fall from grace for the Hasmoneans. Not one Hasmonean remained after several generations of intermarriage and intra-violence. The Rabbis of the Talmudic era cite their error in taking the throne as the reason for their ultimate colossal failure.

Indeed, the Hasmoneans did not separate church and state. They were the kings and the priests at the same time and carried absolute power. As time has proven time and time again, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Hasmoneans ended up in the scrap heap of history because of their failure in this regard.

There are two kinds of candles on our Chanukah menorah. There are the candles that we light each light. On the first night we light one and the second night we light two and we continue adding candles for eight night. By lighting these candles we fulfill a religious obligation to light these candles as instituted by the great rabbis of the Mishnah. We light candles and create holiness.

However there is another candle. The shamash is the candle we use to light the nightly candles. It does not factor into the religious nightly lighting. It is a functional candle, not a holy candle. It is a candle whose name, shamash can mean “caretaker”. The shamash is the lighter. But it is not the candle of the mitzvah.

Perhaps, the requirement that we use a shamash was a wink from the rabbis of the Mishnah reminding us why the Hasmoneans were such a disaster. They did not separate the political from the religious. The functional and holy were too closely intertwined. The political leaders were from the same family as the religious leaders.

Chanukah remembers their initial success but the lighting of the Chanukah candles reminds us of their ultimate failure. They did not separate church and state. On our Chanukah menorah we do separate church and state. We light holy candles to do a mitzvah. We light those candles with a separate, purely functional candle.

I’m not quite sure how to relate this idea to contemporary Chanukah celebrations and the current state of Jewish affairs. But I am pretty sure there is a message in there that reminds us that sometimes we and our leaders need to hear alternative voices. That a kinas sofrim among Jews is a good thing and helps us fine tune our personal observance. There cannot be just one way, with one leadership, with one set of ideas. There must be multiple voices. There can’t be absolute power because is absolutely corrupts. Just ask as the shamash.


  • >I think that a truer version of a separation between church and state originated with ancient Judaism.
    What ancient Israel had was something like every European nation had during the medievel ages. There was a King, but there was a Pope controlling the afairs of the religion. Yet nobody would state that this was a separation of powers.

    Also, if you read Nach, you can see, the king had ABSOLUTE power. 

    • You realize that your two statements are contradictory.

      • Yes. you are right that it came out that way. I did mean my former point, but you do see at times him crossing over into the religion as well. He had absolute power in other issues where “din melech”comes to play and execute people as he sees fit without trial.

        I think anyway you cut it, there is no way you can use ancient Judaism as a model for the seperation. At the least, it is no different than the medievel model.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree.  Judaism
    does not separate between Church and State. Like Sunni Islam, it distinguishes the
    Priest’s authority from the King’s but its legal system is derived entirely
    from scripture.


    America’s separation of  Church and State is an extension of a legal system derived not from
    revelation but largely from an 18th century understanding of natural
    law and natural rights. This offers the obvious advantage of denying religion
    direct access to the mechanisms of State power; not only because of its
    corrupting influences on both religion and the State because of the inevitable and devastating
    consequences of religious coercion.


    Unlike the West, however, Judaism does not create a distinction between religion and society; a distinction that denudes society of a
    common identity rooted in traditional  moral and cultural references (see Richard
    John Nehaus’ The Naked Public Square) and is largely responsible for the
    conflict of values that informs much of contemporary life.