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Hanukkah at the Arch of Titus

Professor Steven Fine Reflects on Jewish View of Menorah Depicted on the Arch of Titus Through the Ages

It is hard for me to look up at the menorah of the Arch of Titus in Rome without feeling deep emotions. This is especially true at Hanukkah—and especially this Hanukkah, when stabbings in Jerusalem, the murder and enslavement of the Yazidi and the bombings in Paris, Beirut and Sinai were so fresh.

The Arch of Titus commemorates the defeat of Judaea in the Jewish Revolt, culminating in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Its reliefs, once colored brightly, show the most holy vessels of the Temple, taken as booty and triumphally paraded through Rome in 71 CE. They are carried by Roman soldiers, celebratory wreaths on their heads.

These carvings mark the end of a long historical process that began with the revolt of the Maccabees 200 years earlier, the one that we celebrate at Hanukkah. Where in 166 BCE  Antiochus Epiphanes (in Jewish sources, "the Evil") hoped to transform the Temple into a pagan cult center, in 70 CE, Titus (similarly "the Evil") destroyed it utterly. The Seleucid Greek king had profaned the Temple and stolen its sacred vessels, his descendants returned the bronze ones to the Jewish community; Titus, by contrast, threw down the Temple and took the golden seven-branched menorah and the Biblically-ordained table of the showbread, purple curtains and the Torah scroll into captivity—together with many, many Jews.

Where the miracle and hope of Hanukkah celebrates the ascending lights of the menorah, a new lamp set ablaze each night (a process that is paralleled in the heavens as the days begin to lengthen with the winter solstice, roughly during Hanukkah), the Arch of Titus menorah is dark, carried by reveling heathen soldiers in a triumphal parade and into a triumphal museum built by Titus' father, the emperor Vespasian. In truly Orwellian language, this museum was called the "Temple of Peace."

Yet looking up at the menorah of the Arch of Titus, our ancestors have often conjured a far more positive image, one that bears a positive lesson for us today.

At least from the Renaissance on, some Jews chose not to see Romans carrying the menorah at all. Rather, they imagined that the menorah bearers are actually Jews—members of a "strong nation," Jewish prisoners bearing their holy vessels into captivity with their own strength. Small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

Looking into the faces of the menorah-bearers, our ancestors often imagined Jewish soldiers, temporarily enslaved, carrying the menorah forward. This powerful—if historically inaccurate—metaphor of Jewish menorah-bearers gained traction during the 20th century. Zionists in particular ran with it, imagining Jews of every type—religious and secular, men and women—together bearing the menorah forward. In 1947, Holocaust survivors in Rome marched through the Arch from west to east, symbolically carrying the menorah back to Zion, as they celebrated the United Nations vote to establish a Jewish state. They turned the Arch of Titus from a symbol of Jewish degradation into an icon of hope for a better Jewish future.

Jews who were subjected to the ghettos of early modern Rome, to the ravages of the pogroms and of the Holocaust, have looked up at the Arch and by force of their own self-esteem transformed it from darkness to light—eventually choosing the Arch of Titus menorah to illuminate synagogues, institutions and the State of Israel, where it appears on the national emblem.  We have transformed a symbol of our degradation into the emblem of our hopes, and it is this ability to transform darkness into light and mourning into festivals, to imagine a better future and to make it so, that is the essence of Hanukkah.

Many historical narratives of Hanukkah can be told, some of military victory, others of fratricide and civil war. Even modern "denominationalism" has been read into the story. Ancient Jewish histories of the Maccabees are preserved for us in the Christian Bible. The rabbis of the Talmud, by contrast, mostly put aside sectarian bickering and military exploits and emphasized the success of "the few over the many," "the holy over the profane," "ascent in holiness" over decent to nothingness: increasing light over darkness.

Our ancestors managed to see past Antiochos and even past Titus to imagine a brighter future, a positive vision of Jewish destiny that has sustained us for millennia. Theirs was not a "historical" argument, but a spiritual one. Judaism possesses a powerful sense that Jews can "overcome" the would-be Antiochoses and Tituses of our own world, even with the awareness that darkness is as close as a quenched candle.

During these last days of Hanukkah, I saw in the Arch of Titus menorah the many generations who have borne their own menorahs.  In a small way, I drew on their strength, each of us adding light and hope to our troubled world with each and every Hanukkah candle.

Dr. Steven Fine is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and instructor of YU's free Coursera course, The Arch of Titus:  Rome and the Menorah. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Yeshiva University.