Hanukkah and Hypocrisy

Just a few days ago the New York Times published an article about Hanukkah with the following headline:

“Hypocrisy of Hanukkah: It’s a holiday that commemorates an ancient battle against assimilation. And it’s the one holiday that most assimilated Jews celebrate.”

More interesting than the title is its point that the heroes in the story, “The Maccabees”, were more like the Taliban (my words) in their particular, tribal religious zealotry, and the villains, at least some of them, were more like us, assimilated Jews who were part of the dominant, cosmopolitan, Greek culture. What folks generally don’t understand is that “the war” that makes up the center of the Hanukkah story is actually at least 2 wars: one against an outside aggressor, the Assyrians,; and another civil war pitting religious zealots from the Judean hills (Judah Maccabee and company) against the assimilated, cosmopolitan Jews of the Greek dominated urban centers. Just in case you have not got it yet, let me be clear: while we root for the Maccabees, their internal opponents were likely the first Reform Jews!

You might think that as a Reform rabbi this is upsetting to me, but it’s not because I understand that Hanukkah is the chameleon of the Jewish holidays; its meaning changes to suit the times. For example the original Hanukkah celebration was probably a delayed Sukkot; they were fighting during the harvest but as soon as it was over they commemorated, what was for them, the most important holy day of the year. Fast forward 2200 years to America and Hanukkah is all about religious freedom, while in Israel today, the military story is more current.

I also know that “history” and “meaning” are not always married and sometimes, we make our own story out of the stories we inherit. This I believe is what our ancient ancestors did when they chose the story of the miracle over the war story. At that time the Romans ruled over what they called “Palestina” and the Jews that lived there. One can imagine that the story of a small group of religious zealots overcoming a Super Power didn’t play very well; ergo the miracle of the light. And, whether the miracle ever happened or not, I like the simple message of light in a dark world and the choice of miracles over military might.

The hero for me is the nameless individual who decided to light the light even though she knew there was not enough oil. The person willing to take a leap of faith, with no reason to think it’s going to be OK, is inspiring. And when I say “faith” I’m not necessarily referring to God but rather the belief in the promise of the future and the ability for us mere humans to make history.

One thought on “Hanukkah and Hypocrisy

  1. Thanks for pointing us toward this NYT article. I think its author might find more meaning in Judaism if he didn’t see it, even this time of year, as in competition with Christian belief and practice. In that sense, the answer to his daughter’s longing for Santa would not be so much that we celebrate Hanukkah “instead of Christmas,” but rather that we are so lucky to have challah each week, and groggers and silliness at Purim, and an afikomen search at Pesach, and, yes, eight nights of candles and latkes and dreidels. Maybe being a Reform Jew doesn’t have to mean assimilation, just pluralism — finding the most meaningful way to do our thing within the context of the culture and historical moment we live in. And as you say, we can use the Hanukkah narrative in a way that speaks to us in our time and place.

    Again, thank you for your thought provoking comments!

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