Maoz Tzur: Rock of Ages

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

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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.