Every year in December (starting the evening of December 18 this year), Jewish people throughout the world, celebrate the eight day holiday of Hanukah. I hope that both Jews and Muslims will also remember all oppressed religious communities, such as the Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province, and the brave Muslim woman of Iran who are protesting the cruelty of Iran’s morality police and have suffered hundreds of martyrs: because Hanukah teaches the very important lesson that faith and hope in the long run overcome nasty politics and politicians.
Hanukkah has long been considered a minor holiday – it entered the Jewish calendar well after the time of the Torah, and has no restrictions on work, not even a book of Bible to support it.
Yet today it is one of the best known and most commonly observed of Jewish holidays. Or as many rabbis lament; in most American Jewish families, Hanukkah is much more important than the biblical holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot. And this may be true of non-orthodox Israeli Jews as well.
All scholars agree that the modern prominence of Hanukkah is due to two different trends, one with a Diasporic focus, and the other with a focus on Zionism and the modern state of Israel.
First is Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas and modern developments in Christmas’ commercialism in our society at this time of year. Not a small number of Jews I know find December a very difficult time of year, a time when we feel our minority status in a predominantly Christian society most acutely. Many Jewish families feel the need to imitate some of the traditions of Christmas (such as lavish gift giving) so that our children and families don’t feel so left out.
Second, for the situation in Israel: the story of the Maccabees and their triumph over King Antiochus and the armies of the Seleucid Empire, one critical element of the Hanukkah story, speaks to themes of Jewish nationalism and self-determination that are at the heart of Zionism and the modern revival of a sovereign Jewish state in the Holy Land.
And these two different views feel very different, even oppositional. One seems to emphasize the tensions of living as a minority interacting with the dominant surrounding culture, the other independence from foreign influence and domination. But Judaism has always allowed for and embraced and encouraged complexity. And thus our understandings of Hanukkah and its relations to our political and cultural situations can be considered in other directions.
For example, it is worth noting that the military victory, as already hinted above, is only one part of the Hanukkah story. The other does not appear in our tradition until later, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21b) – “What is Hanukkah?” the passage asks, and then relates the story of the oil that lasted eight days. Why do the rabbis tell, or even add, this story?
Among the possible reasons is that the subsequent history of the Hasmonean royal dynasty established by the Maccabees is rather less heroic than the story of its origins; eventually they became a vassal state of Rome, and also became corrupted and Hellenized.
Winning a military victory and establishing functioning self-governance are not the same thing, and the latter is an on-going struggle the outcome of which is never guaranteed to fallible human leaders. As Rabbi Waskow writes: “in retrospect, the rabbis were critical of the meaning and ultimate outcome of the Maccabean revolt. And so, without utterly rejecting the national liberation movement, they refocused attention away from it toward God’s miracle – towards the spiritual meaning of the light that burned for eight days and was not consumed.”
And so too for the celebration of Hanukkah in the Western Diaspora, it is not only the miracle, but the battle for religious freedom and against assimilation that matters. Elevating Hanukkah for many Jews is precisely a message that despite the pressures of the culture around us, we retain our own vital traditions and our own unique Jewish identity.
Proverbs 20:27 tells us: “God’s lamp is the human soul.” God not only created, but continues to create both the light of the flame and the light of our souls. Both the light of a flame and the light of our souls is multiple, complex and irreducible.
There are many kinds of Jews in many places and circumstances and many meanings they bring to Hanukkah – and one eternal Jewish people. The real challenge for Jews of all types, secular and religious, inside and outside Israel, is to identify with and affirm Hanukkah’s authentic message of optimism and faith.