A Meditation on Maoz Zur
The question of what we celebrate when we light the Hanukkah menorah raises the larger question of God's role in history. In the rabbinic view, Hanukkah commemorates a single, transient moment of historical redemption. The ultimate, eternal redemption has not yet arrived; it must take place outside of history. In the Zionist narrative, by contrast, Hanukkah marks the military victory that paved the way to Jewish national sovereignty in the Jewish land; it was the beginning of a redemption that takes place within history itself.
Ismar Schorsch is the son of Emil Schorsch, who was the last rabbi of Hanover. The family fled Germany in 1938, during the Hanukkah that was shattered by Kristallnacht. Ismar Schorsch served for 19 years as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In this 1988 essay, “Meditation on Maoz Zur,” he suggests that the conflict between these two conceptions of redemption—within history and beyond history—is neatly encapsulated by the famous Hanukkah hymn, whose much maligned and misunderstood final stanza calls for divine retribution against Israel’s enemies. Schorsch argues that this last verse, often characterized as a bombastic polemic, is in fact a serious theological counterweight to the first five stanzas, with their ring of historical redemption.
We republish the essay by permission of Judaism, where it first appeared. — The Editors
Family history has graced me with a special affection for the holiday of Hanukkah. Fifty years ago, back in the fall of 1938, it literally marked a moment of redemption. As the last rabbi of Hanover, my father, along with thousands of other German Jews, was interned by the Nazis on the still unimaginable night of Kristallnacht. Several weeks later a visa to England, secured through the good offices of Joseph H. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, managed to effect his release, and, like our ancestors in Egypt, we left Germany in haste, by plane, on the first day of Hanukkah. My father was fond of recounting that in that fateful year we lit the first candle in Germany and the second in England. I had just turned three a month before and our dramatic flight was to become my only tangible memory of Germany.
The conjunction of Hanukkah with our personal escape from Nazi tyranny prompted my father later on to enliven our celebration of the festival with a lusty rendition of the traditional hymn, Maoz Zur. While the practice among American Jews generally is to sing only the first stanza, and maybe the fifth, we sang all five, skipping only the sixth and final stanza. The poem’s theme of redemption seemed to offer a poignant comment on our family’s experience. Thus, in time, I developed an existential interest in the poem, spiced by the curious omission of its final stanza. When questioned, my father would simply declare that the stanza was a later and inferior addition.
The purpose of this meditation on Maoz Zur is to reclaim it for the liturgical enrichment of Hanukkah. The sudden popularity of Hanukkah, spurred by Zionist achievement and American need, has outgrown the traditional liturgical garb, predicated on a different valence for the festival. In this bind, we are ill-served by dispensing with a poetic ornament that actually accords with our historical and religious sensibilities. Nor should we be satisfied by an act of tokenism—the retention of a single stanza mistranslated to mask its real meaning.
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. Each stanza of four lines is laced with a complex and varied rhyming pattern, while each line contains two equal halves of six long syllables. Though the use of the quantitative metrical principle is a trademark of medieval Sefardic poets writing under Arabic influence, the well-known lilting melody by which the hymn is traditionally sung, echoing the strains of a fifteenth-century German folksong, seems to underscore the Ashkenazic provenance of the original text. Congruently, the poem is absent from the Sefardic rite.
One is tempted, therefore, to argue that Maoz Zur conveys the collective anguish of a community stunned by three Crusades in the span of a single century and threatened with a deteriorating political situation. But, for medieval Jews, Galut (exile) was a state of mind even during interludes of tranquility, and the pervasive angst of its religious poetry was often generic rather than specific. If Maoz Zur does, in fact, bear witness to the darkening horizon of thirteenth-century German Jewry, its testimony is delivered with disarming restraint.
The setting of the original poem of five stanzas is somewhat indeterminate. The speaker is clearly the national voice of Israel addressing God with customary immediacy. But when? My preference is to date the moment of dialogue not long after the reconquest of the Temple. Maoz Zur is a song of thanksgiving for the recurring and unfailing instances of divine compassion for Israel. The rescue from “Greek” tyranny triggers a recollection of earlier cases when God’s intervention redirects the course of Jewish history. In stanzas two through four the poet recalls, in chronological order, the experience of national degradation in Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia, with the slide into oblivion reversed each time only through a dramatic exhibition of divine power. The redemption at the time of the Hasmoneans, described in the fifth stanza, is seen retrospectively to be yet another confirmation of God’s guardianship of Israel which guarantees its survival. And soon thereafter, in stanza one, the voice of Israel celebrates the destruction of its arrogant foe and the resumption of its cultic link to eternity. The introductory stanza thus anticipates the mood of exultation that follows the climactic act of redemption emphasized by the poem.
But the imperfect tense employed by Mordecai in that opening stanza injects a touch of fertile ambiguity. The suffering of Israel was only momentarily interrupted by Hasmonean victory. The fate of Israel in the poet’s own age continues to hang in the balance. The fluidity of time suggested by what might grammatically be construed as a continuous present (a form well known in the Bible) points to past as well as to future exultation. Collective memory posits the assurance of ultimate messianic salvation.
What may, indeed, tenuously connect Maoz Zur to the age of the Crusades is its conception of the Jewish experience in terms of persecution. A deepening sense of exile seems to be constricting what is worth remembering to episodes of national humiliation. While a full-fledged “lachrymose” theory of Jewish history would have to await the more worldly Sefardic historians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the chronicles and poetry of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Ashkenazic liturgists surely testify to the oppressive reality of mounting insecurity. A compression of the ancient history of Israel to four salient crises has all the earmarks of an inchoate worldview born in dark times. Yet, the mood of Maoz Zur is not funereal, or else its traditional melody would be grotesquely inappropriate. Each crisis is recalled to emphasize its well-timed resolution and to visualize the blessing of God’s enduring protection. The suffering of Israel, whatever its cause, is always relieved by an act of salvation.
With the exposition of the five authentic verses of Maoz Zur, our analysis might easily be ended, adequate and unexceptional. But what has come to intrigue me, in fact, is the addition of the sixth stanza, an unabashed messianic plea for divine retribution upon Israel’s Christian oppressors, often left untranslated by the modern prayerbooks that deign to print it. To probe the reasons for this poetic codicil is not only to clarify the meaning of the original poem by Mordecai, but also to confront the religious doubts evoked by the defiant autonomy of history.
Internal evidence like the acrostic is not the only basis for decoding the lateness of the sixth stanza. External evidence is provided by a German halakhist at the end of the seventeenth century who relates having found several different versions of a sixth stanza affixed to the original text of Maoz Zur. Obligingly, he cites all three, including one penned by none other than Moses Isserlis, the renowned Polish rabbinic authority of the sixteenth century. However, the version which eventually gained currency appeared anonymously, perhaps because the acrostic of its first three words spelled the bracing command, hazak—‘be strong.’ According to our source, all three versions strove for the same effect—to update and complete Maoz Zur by reference to the fourth and final overlord of Israel’s endless subjugation.1
Classic rabbinic messianism, based on the apocalypse of Daniel, had plotted the plight of Israel on a grid of four empires—Babylon, Persia-Media, Greece, and Rome. Inevitably, medieval Jewish history had imposed modifications on the identity of the Imperial players, but the schematic framework held firm, and the Hebrew cognomen, Edom, came to encompass medieval Christendom as well as ancient Rome. From the number of additions to Maoz Zur that were in circulation by the seventeenth century, it is obvious that Jews who had endured the recurring expulsions from German principalities in the late Middle Ages and had witnessed the colossal breakup of the Papal empire itself suddenly invested the old prayer with fresh messianic fervor. The lack of any allusion to the fourth kingdom and its downfall was now felt to be intolerable.
The language of the anonymous stanza that was finally accepted bristles with particular hostility. Besides a blunt entreaty for revenge against “the wicked kingdom,” it dares to allude to the internecine struggle fracturing the unity of the Christian world: “dehei admon be-zel zalmon—vanquish Christianity (admon, a variant of edom) in the very shadow of the cross” (zalmon, a variant of zelem and here standing either for the Papacy or the heartland of Christianity).2 Understandably, somewhat later, the stanza was softened by universalizing the line: “mehei fesha ve-gam resha—erase all sin and transgression.” Left untouched, though, is the rousing messianic finale—“and send forth the seven shepherds,” a passage from Micah (5:4) which the rabbis took to mean the reappearance of a phalanx of seven biblical figures led by David (Succah, 52b).
The various additions proffered thus confirm my reading of Mordecai’s poem as a song of thanksgiving set back in the days of the Maccabees. The authors behind them also understood the opening stanza as primarily a celebration of Maccabean reconquest and rededication. Ultimate messianic redemption had to await the travails of yet a fourth kingdom—Rome. The vision of Maoz Zur did not clearly extend beyond the third—that of the “Greeks,” rendering it slightly sterile for the impatient victims of the most formidable of all the kingdoms.
But the addition of the sixth stanza altered subtly the theological message of the entire poem. Mordecai had found consolation in the constancy of divine concern; the author of the codicil implied displeasure at the brevity of the result. Evidently, not all instances of divine pathos were of equal efficacy. The messianic temper questioned the long-term value of earlier redemptive acts. What prompted this criticism was not only experience but also exegesis. In the final analysis, to comprehend fully the issue on which the completed poem turns, we must turn to its literary source. For Maoz Zur is a commentary on an exquisite piece of midrashic thought.
That midrash is to be found on Psalm 31, the biblical quarry from which Mordecai had hewn the opening phrase of his poem—“O mighty Rock of my salvation.” The Psalm itself is the entreaty of a tried and beleaguered man who has always experienced his trust in God to be mercifully rewarded. The second verse aptly captures the mood throughout: “I seek refuge in You, O Lord; may I never be disappointed; as You are righteous, rescue me.” The midrash seizes on the problematic word “never” (leolam) to ponder the efficacy of God’s protection. The word, as well as the whole Psalm, seems to imply that, once bestowed, God’s salvation will never lapse. The person so blessed will never again know shame and discomfiture. Indeed, Isaiah confirmed that very proposition when he declaimed: “Israel has won through the Lord triumph everlasting. You shall not be shamed or disgraced in all the ages to come!” (45:17)
After this prologue, the midrash weaves a dialogue between Israel and God in order to confront the harsh divergence between history and theology. The people ask God for immediate redemption, because their state of subjugation is forever accompanied by degradation and disgrace. “Redeem us and we shall be rid of degradation. Why? Because Your redemption is everlasting.” And they buttress their case with the verse from Isaiah. But God rejects the underlying assumption. “I have already redeemed you in the past and I will be your redeemer again in days to come.” He, too, cites scriptural evidence of past intervention and continued engagement.
Nevertheless, Israel remains unmollified. “To be sure, You have already redeemed us through Moses, through Joshua, and through some judges and kings. But we have once again been subjugated and endure degradation as if we had never been redeemed.”
To which God responds that, in fact, those were cases of redemption effected by mere mortals, beings of flesh and blood. “Your leaders were men, alive one day and buried the next. It is for this reason that your redemption was only redemption for an hour. But in days to come I, who live and endure forever, shall redeem you Myself. I shall redeem you with an eternal redemption, as it is said: ‘Israel has won through the Lord triumph everlasting.’ Consequently, ‘You shall not be shamed or disgraced in all ages to come!’”3
In short, the sordidness of history need not confute the purity of theology. The courage to distinguish between relief effected by men, no matter how exalted and inspired, and redemption through unmediated divine interjection affords a fragile reconciliation between what we see and what we believe. God’s fleeting presence is insufficient to bring history to its rightful end, though it has left traces of enduring and sustaining brilliance.
I am convinced that the final stanza of Maoz Zur rests on this profound and sober midrash. Centuries after Mordecai, another Ashkenazic Jew, stirred by the tremors and aftershocks of the Reformation, appended his messianic codicil. Prior achievements of national redemption, from the Babylonian exile to Syrian oppression, were of limited duration because mediated by men. The passing references, in earlier stanzas, to Zerubbabel, Mordecai, and the Hasmoneans suggest as much. In contrast, the fourth kingdom could be overcome only by God Himself. Hence the form of direct address—“Bare Your holy arm,” which, given its original redemptive use by Isaiah (52:10), is redolent with messianic urgency. Short of such direct intervention, every respite attained by human hands, even with divine aid, is flawed and perishable.4
Taken together, the two strata of Maoz Zur blend into a liturgical reflection on Jewish history—the precariousness of minority existence, the reality of divine concern, the consolation of collective memory, and the rarity of true messianism. Paradoxically, the final stanza, with all of its messianic fervor, accentuates the modern emphasis on the human role in the Hanukkah story. The hunger for irreversible redemption is not to be satisfied by human counterfeit. Messianism, properly understood, leads to political restraint. To my mind, no lesson is more vital to a generation like ours which is so prone to misread the signs of recent Jewish history.
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