Hanukkah Themes and Theology

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There is another extraordinary component to the holiday that revolves around the Jewish people and our relationship with God. In a time when access to the Temple was blocked and the Temple itself was converted into a pagan shrine, there arose a genuine question of whether or not the absence of a functioning Temple impacted on our covenant with God. The victory of the Maccabees, although vastly outnumbered by the enemy and with far less sophisticated weaponry, answered the theological dilemma. God had expressed solidarity with the Jewish people through a historic event. Although communication through the Temple was impossible, communication occurred nonetheless. The covenant between God and the Jewish people does not reside within a building, it vibrantly lives in the world at large, in history, in intent, and in action.

Still, the theme of victory was downplayed in favor of a more spiritual, God-centered message. The Books of Maccabees were not canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. Rather, the rabbinic message of Hanukkah may be understood through the Biblical texts and especially the haftarah (prophetic reading) chosen for this holiday: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).  

At a time of the year when the days are growing shorter and there is more darkness than light, it is fitting to view this metaphorically and celebrate an instant in time when a light shone in Jewish history. The dark forces of oppression were seen as closing in, and a tiny people succeeded in forcing them back, physically and spiritually. How fitting that we light candles to connect us to this moment. Ancient issues, modern questions, and little candles provide continuity through time.

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