Maoz Tzur: Rock of Ages

The most famous Hanukkah song is a lesson in history and theology.

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This well-known Hanukkah song summarizes historical challenges faced by the Jewish people that have been overcome with God's help. Yet this joyous song also contains a later addition, a sixth stanza composed three centuries after the original Maoz Tzur was written. The appearance of this little-known, rarely-sung stanza poses a challenge to modern Jewish sensibilities. It is a raw, emotional reaction to persecution faced by the Jewish community in Christian Europe. While being able to identify with the emotions that arise out of the historical circumstances, the call for Divine retribution is foreign to the modern ear. Nonetheless, the theological question of God’s role in history raised in the last stanza of this song is a question that is still asked today.

Reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration. (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Maoz Tzur is undoubtedly the most famous of Hanukkah songs. Composed in the 13th century of the Common Era by a poet only known to us through the acrostic found in the first letters of the original five stanzas of the song--Mordecai-- it became the traditional hymn sung after the candlelighting in Ashkenazi homes. The familiar tune is most probably a derivation of a German Protestant church hymn or a popular folk song.

 

Although many families attempt to sing the first stanza, either in the original Hebrew or in a not-so-accurate English translation by M. Jastrow and G. Gottheil entitled "Rock of Ages," the song as it has evolved through the years now contains six stanzas, the last stanza having been added by an unknown poet sometime during the 16th century. Unfortunately, due either to the exuberance of children rushing to open presents or general illiteracy with regard to Jewish liturgy, Maoz Tzur often gets a token singing at best, with the vast majority of Hanukkah celebrants quite unaware of its true meaning.

In a fascinating look at Maoz Tzur, Professor Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, examined the text of the poem in a penetrating article entitled "A Meditation on Maoz Zur" (Judaism, fall 1988, pp. 459-64). Explaining that he and his family fled from Germany on the first day of Hanukkah, 1938, Schorsch says the singing of Maoz Tzur has always held special significance for him. Yet, he wonders, why was it that their practice was to sing the first five stanzas and not the later sixth?

The theme of Maoz Tzur is a familiar one: God's unfailing redemption of the people Israel. After an opening stanza promising thanksgiving to God now and always, the poet recalls four moments of Divine intervention in chronological order: Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and the Greeks of the Hanukkah story.

It is the sixth stanza that brings Schorsch to his analysis of the meaning of the poem. In a particularly blunt plea for revenge against the "wicked kingdom," the poet dares to wish for God to intervene once more and "vanquish Christianity in the very shadow of the cross." How could a Jewish poet who knew of the persecutions inflicted on his people by the Romans and their descendants be ignored at the triumphant moment of Hanukkah? Yet, the addition of the sixth stanza calls into question the basic theology of the entire song. If God always redeems his people, why are we still awaiting the messianic kingdom?

Schorsch turns our attention to Psalm 31, upon which the opening phrase, "Maoz Tzur" is based. The second verse of the Psalm reads: "I seek refuge in You, O Lord; may I never be disappointed; as You are righteous, rescue me." The midrash, the rabbinic commentary that seeks to expound the simple meaning of the text, pounces on the word "le'olam"--"never"--andposes one of the most difficult problems for a religious person: how to reconcile the continuous promise of redemption with the harsh reality of life.

In the midrashic dialogue between the people Israel and God, Israel asks why, if God's redemption is everlasting, do we continue to suffer? "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." God responds that redemption effected through mere mortals is not true redemption, even if influenced by Divine intention.

The author of the sixth stanza of Maoz Tzur, reeling from the shock of persecutions and expulsions, attached his messianic codicil. The previous redemptions, from the Babylonian exile to the Syrian-Greek oppressions, were of limited duration because they were mediated by men. The fourth kingdom, Christianity will only be overcome by God directly.

Schorsch concludes that "taken together, the two strata of Maoz Tzur 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." He warns us to be careful of emphasizing the human role of the Hanukkah story and draws a parallel to the current political situation in Israel. Just as the Maccabees achieved only a limited "redemption," Schorsch warns that "messianism, properly understood, leads to political restraint."

The true meaning of Maoz Tzur serves both to remind us of the harsh divergence between history and theology and to hold out the promise of ultimate redemption by the hand of God.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.