What Miracle? Hanukkah 2018
This Sunday evening, December 2, begins Hanukkah, the eight day holiday of lights. It’s the simplest and most complicated of holidays and it functions in America in ways that are virtually impossible to predict from its history. [click here for information on celebrations here at BHA; read on for insights into the holiday]
On the most basic level the traditional practice is to light a hannukiah (or menorah) at sundown on each of the eight nights of the holiday. The hannukiah is placed in a window or some other public place so that the miracle can be publicized. Which miracle? We’ll get back to that.
People spin dreidels, eat foods fried in oil like donuts and of course, exchange gifts with their loved ones. For reasons that have far more to do with its coincidental occurrence with Christmas, it also has a huge pop-culture footprint – check out for instance, Adam Sandler’s (dare I say – classic?) Hanukkah Song, parts 1 to 4.
On a historical level, the holiday is a celebration of the victory of Jews over their Syrian Greek conquerors in 164 BCE.
Way back then, the Greek empire brought new ideas and institutions to the Middle East, and in the land of Israel, many Jews embraced these developments. Democracy is great! Bath houses are lovely!
Jewish reformers wanted to merge these two cultures, so they assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. By the way, I’m an American born rabbi with a Celtic name writing in English, so these issues are not altogether alien to me, nor, perhaps, to you.
But not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly, practicing and learning Torah in private, while others fled to the hills and waged their own form of cultural resistance, which the Greeks were happy to ignore.
After a few years, the Greek spirit of toleration ended for some unknown reason. The Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the Jewish Temple and banning Jewish practice under penalty of death.
So, as in any good action movie, a ragtag army of rebels emerged to fight the empire. Judah Maccabee, led an insurgent revolt fighting against the Greeks and the Jewish reformers with equal ferocity. Ultimately, and perhaps miraculously, the small group of rebels did defeat the Empire. Yes, Star Wars analogies are entirely appropriate here.
So we return to the question -- What's the miracle of Hannukah?
In some ways, the miracle was the military victory of the tiny band of guerillas insurgents against the hegemonic Greek empire. But the later rabbinic tradition, which formed Judaism as we know it, focused not on the fighting, but on the spiritual one – when the Macacabees regained control of the Temple they cleaned and purified it, but there was only enough oil to light the ritual candelabrum for one night. That little cruse of oil miraculously lasted eight days, hence eight days of Hanukkah.
So really, we have both the military miracle and the spiritual miracle. Your choice. But that’s not the end of the story.
On a personal level, Hanukkah can actually be quite challenging. The heroes of the story can be seen as religious freedom fighters and a model of liberation.
However, this revolution, like many others, reserved its greatest fury for moderates, in this case, those who sought compromise between Greek and Jewish culture and therein lies the essential contradiction of the American Hanukkah.
American Hanukkah, is nothing if not an attempt to strike a compromise between Jewish culture and surrounding American culture. In a traditional Jewish framework, Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor holiday, perhaps like Arbor Day in an American context. It has become a major juggernaut only because of its proximity to Christmas in the American calendar.
Countless Jewish children see the beautiful lights and trees of Christian friends and neighbors and ask, “Where are our lights?” It is to answer that question, the hannukiah (or menorah) has become the major symbol we know today.
As a liberal American rabbi, who proudly and deliberately draws on my American heritage for some things, such as notions of individual liberty and gender equity and my Jewish heritage for others, such as a focus on the Divine, collective concern for the poor and the importance of spiritual practice, I see the power of learning from multiple heritages. That means I might very well have been one of the Hellenized Jews who the Macabees sought to destroy.
When I light my hannukiah in a few weeks, the heroes I will think of will be yes, the warrior Maccabees who resisted oppression, but even more so, the rabbis who 500 years after the Macabee revolt, retold the story and shifted the emphasis to the spiritual miracle of unwarranted hope and the oil which lasted for eight days. They inherited a story of military victory and re-imagined it, holding onto the past with one hand and the present with the other, so as to live a Judaism that was both authentic and meaningful to them. More than anything else, the miracle I celebrate is the ongoing transmission of a story inherited from the past and transformed so as to nourish us in the present. As the rabbis of the Talmud inherited and transformed, so too do we, and pray that so too will our children and grandchildren
May all our hannukahs and all our lives be both authentic and meaningful.