Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once!But I think both approaches tend to miss, or at least obscure, the central message of Hanukkah. Hanukkah, at its core, was not really about miraculous oil or fighting against religious tyranny; it was an internal Jewish battle over identity within a secular world. Modern Jewish historians will tell you that Hanukkah wasn’t so much about Jews versus Syrian-Greeks but about assimilated (Hellenized) Jews who wanted to adopt Greek cultural norms versus orthodox traditionalists who rejected Greek practices as heretical. In fact, we know from other historical evidence that Seleucid kings let their conquered subjects practice whatever religious observance they chose. But in this case, Hellenized Jews who felt besieged by traditionalist opponents asked Antiochus to intercede. Hanukkah was the battleground for this struggle over Jewish identity.
It is a battle we are still fighting today. Sadly, it is being fought most openly in the very terrain in which it began more than 2000 years ago. Whether it is the fight over women’s ability to pray at the Kotel (Western Wall) or the stranglehold the Rabbanut (the official Israeli rabbinic organization) holds over religious observance, we continue to see the tragedy of religious extremism in Israel in general and in Jerusalem in particular. The real tragedy is that we know how this story ends. We often conclude the Hanukkah story far too early chronologically. We see it as a triumph, of retaining our heritage in the face of the assimilationist onslaught. But what really happened was that religious zealots took over the mantle of leadership of Judea and begat a short-lived, highly destructive era of war and chaos. In fact, religious fanaticism became so extreme during this period that, as recounted by the historian Josephus, Jewish leaders for the one and only time in Jewish history forcibly converted their neighbors (a people known as the Idumaeans) to Judaism. The era ended with factionalism, the excesses of King Herod, and ultimately the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from Jerusalem for approximately 1900 years. At the other end of the spectrum, the 20th century has shown that fervent assimilationism also has been highly destructive to Jewish identity.
So we know that extremism—whether pro-assimilation or pro-tradition—dooms us to failure. The lesson we ought to learn from Hanukkah is not to choose either extreme. Only an integrated approach, drawing upon some of the riches of our secular society and intertwining them with our tradition, can ensure a vibrant, resonant Judaism. I believe this is the wisdom underlying the primary mitzvah of Hanukkah. We are commanded to light our Hanukkiah where it will be in public view in order to highlight God’s miraculous intervention (known in Aramaic is pirsumei nisah) during the original Hanukkah. We celebrate our particularism, our unique identity and religious heritage, in public. Hanukkah is not meant to be a private holiday. Yet the Hanukkiah itself is not provocative or confrontational. Its purpose is not to be antagonistic to the non-Jewish world but to demonstrate, symbolically, Judaism’s potential to add warmth and light to our secular context. This is the potential Hanukkah holds for each of us.
In some ways, it is inevitable that we will always have to juggle our need for particular Jewish expression with our desire to enjoy the benefits of our secular world. But by seeing both as complementary rather than adversarial we can move beyond the missteps of our forebearers, Hasmonean and Hellenistic alike, in cultivating a rich, vibrant, and sustainable Judaism. May we each be blessed with a Hag Urim Sameakh, a joyous and illuminating holiday.