Hanukkah is a holiday with an identity crisis. From the beginning, the rabbis had difficulty pinpointing what it was that we are celebrating. Was it the Maccabees’ or God’s military victory over the Assyrians? Was it a spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism? Or was it the miracle in which one small jar gave light in the Temple for eight days? Or is it a holiday celebrating a victory of the Jewish people against religious oppression?
What we often do when we have many options is that we pick all of them. Instead of clarifying, however, this creates confusion and a lack of focus and a relegating of the holiday away from values to the realm of ritual observance alone. We light candles without really knowing why and celebrate without a clear understanding of the cause of our joy.
The identity crisis of Hanukkah, however, comes from an even deeper source. Many of the above potential meanings for celebration are no longer compelling or meaningful. Military victories are wonderful, especially when one takes into account the alternative, but in a world in which Jewish power is integral to the Jewish experience, the celebration of a victory more than 2,000 years ago is not particularly compelling or meaningful. For a military victory to be memorable, its outcome needs to have produced a tipping point.
The Maccabean victory was no such tipping point in Jewish history.
Today, however, we face an even more substantive issue. When Hanukkah became a holiday, we lived in a world of dichotomies between Judaism and Hellenism, in which the lights of Hanukkah symbolized a purity of faith and commitment to Torah, free from Hellenistic influence and corruption. We spoke of Athens and Jerusalem as two alternative and mutually exclusive paths. One’s identity was either grounded in and nurtured by Jerusalem or was rooted and guided by Athens. Each creates a distinct and mutually exclusive identity. The victory of one is the defeat of the other.
The essence of the modern era, however, may be encapsulated as the period in which such dichotomies have come to an end. A modern Jew is one who has multiple identities and multiple loyalties. He or she is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings. What a previous generation would call assimilation — that is, the penetration of “outside” ideas and cultures within a Jewish one — the modern Jew sees as essential to building a life of meaning and a Judaism of excellence.
Whatever Athens or Jerusalem might have signified in the past, today they represent the notion that to be a Jew is to live in the larger world and aspire to create a new dialogue with that world in which both sides learn from and impact on each other. As a result, Jewish identity has changed. We no longer see our identity as singular and unique, but as integrated and complex. Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem.
What then does Hanukkah mean? For many, it acquires special significance as a buttress to Jewish identity during a Christmas season, where Christian identity shines. The Hanukkah menorah is the antidote to the Christmas tree, and we can give our children presents for eight days and not merely one.
Far from ridiculing this practice, I actually believe that therein may lie the beginning of a new meaning for Hanukkah. Not, however, in its commercial sense or as an antidote to anything, but in its aspirations to create a space for Jews and Judaism within a larger world. We do not yearn to reject Athens or to go back to a singular identity. We celebrate the possibilities of engaging one of our identities with the other, one idea with another, to the mutual growth and benefit of each. The challenge, however, in a multicultural, multi-identity world is how not to descend into mediocre notions of common denominators and superficial syntheses.
If the real gift of modernity is the moral and spiritual consequences of having a complex identity and living in both the metaphorical Jerusalem and Athens, the challenge is how to sustain all the various features of one’s identity. Assimilation today is no longer the removal of dichotomies, but the abandonment of difference.
Our enemy is not outside but within. The purpose of lighting a candle is not to celebrate a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being. One is obligated to place the menorah in a window where passersby can see and in so doing, to make space within one’s public persona for Judaism to shine forth.
A so-called “good Jew” is no longer one who fights Hellenism but one who maintains a Jewish core within the multiple facets of their life. It was often much easier to be a Jew when we were fighting “them,” whoever “they” may have been. To maintain a Jewish commitment within a world in which dichotomies are gone requires a level of Jewish education and knowledge unparalleled in Jewish history. A dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens in which the value of each is maintained will only be possible if one knows what Jerusalem means and what values and ideas Judaism can contribute to living a meaningful life.
We are free today to light our menorahs but the light must not only shine outside as a wall between us and them, but must shine within as a commitment to discovering a Judaism of ideas and values as an integral part of our journey.