It seems that only yesterday we were all standing in our synagogues awaiting the final tekiyah of the High Holy Days and looking forward to speeding off to our break-fast meals. It is incredible how quickly our days go by, and how quickly we pass through our Jewish cycle of holidays.
Nevertheless, we are about to embark on the next Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. Now, I must be the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, because this holiday does not even make it to my top five list of holidays. In fact, I will state right now, at the beginning of this article, what the conclusion is and then you will not need to read the entire thing: I don’t mind clerks at stores wishing me a Merry Christmas; I don’t hate Christmas songs; I don’t think there is some form of discrimination going on when our society treats Christmas one way and Hanukkah another. And I believe we as Jews have lost the true meaning of Hanukkah, the true miracle. In order to find it, we must rededicate ourselves to finding that meaning and miracle.
The core of the story we have been learning all these years is some containers of pure oil were left after the defilement of the Temple in Jerusalem. These containers should not have been enough oil to last for more than a day and a half, but miraculously they lasted for eight days. Details of this version of the story are found in the Talmud and in the book of Maccabees (not part of the Jewish Bible, but part of the Apocrypha). Historians have researched this story and it does not check out, but they have put together pieces of a much greater story and an even greater miracle.
Here is my summary of the historical story of Hanukkah: After Alexander the Great conquered most of the Middle East, the Jews found themselves under his control. Alexander implemented a unique style of absorption similar to acculturation rather than assimilation. He allowed for minorities to remain unique, but in a Greek context. Trouble began for the Jews when Alexander died and there was a struggle for leadership. Eventually the Jews found themselves living in the Seleucid dynasty under Antiochus III, who allowed the Jews freedom of religion and expression as long as it did not interfere with state functions. A bitter dispute began in the Jewish community when Antiochus IV became king. The division was between a group in favor of a high level of Hellenization and a group that wanted Judaism in a more pure form.
The priesthood became very corrupted during this time and it was a source of anger among Jews. During this period, the king would appoint a kohen gadol who was in favor of Hellenization, and then appoint another when he no longer wanted the one serving. One of the prior kohanim g’dolim fled the country and came back to attack the current kohen gadol when Antiochus IV was rumored to be dead during an attempted seizure of Egypt. Upon hearing of an “uprising” in Jerusalem, Antiochus returned, attacked Jerusalem mercilessly, and then plundered the Temple. The king’s soldiers and officials in the area were quite oppressive, and the Jews were offended by the high level of Hellenization and the presence of statues of pagan gods.
Antiochus IV next outlawed Judaism. While there are various theories as to why Antiochus outlawed Judaism, two things are obvious here:
1) This was by far the most severe decree Jews had encountered in their history and thus it was completely devastating, and
2) The intense push for heavy Hellenization in Judea was initiated by the elite upper Jewish class and not by the Hellenist outsiders.
In 167 B.C.E., the Maccabees began their revolt and in 164 B.C.E. they successfully retook the Temple and rededicated it. The tradition of the oil lasting for eight days probably comes from the celebration lasting for eight days as there is little historical support for the tradition of the eight-day miracle. Scholars believe the reason for the eight days is most likely because they celebrated the festival of Sukkot late, as the Temple had been unusable during the previous Sukkot. This line of reasoning is very intriguing because the Temple had originally been dedicated during Sukkot, so it makes sense to base the rededication of the same structure on that holiday.
Okay, so I have made Hanukkah less about oil and more about civil war. But I want to save Hanukkah, and not steal it away as the Grinch did to Christmas. The way we, as Jews, can save Hanukkah is by rededicating ourselves to being Jews. We will save Hanukkah when we begin to argue less about Judaism and find the common threads that unite us as Jews.
Hanukkah has nothing to do with gifts — although they are fun — and everything to do with recognizing our responsibilities to our ancestors and our descendants. We need to continue the fight to keep Judaism vibrant and wonderful. We need to continue to find reasons to sit together and not be divided. If we rededicate ourselves, we will create our own miracle in our own time and we will find the true and deeper meaning of the holiday so many love to celebrate.
This Hanukkah, over the eight days, let’s try to rededicate ourselves to our people, our religion and our God. Each day we need to find something new and Jewish to add to our lives: Perhaps giving tzedakah, or maybe lighting Shabbat candles. We could keep kosher, or become more aware of the struggles of Israel.
Whatever we each choose, it will connect us to the holiday of rededication and fight against assimilation. As I said, I do not care if the clerk wishes me a Merry Christmas, what I care about is that I do not equate my minor holiday with their major one and thus diminish its already beautiful values and practices.