Hanukkah is coming. It’s time to tell stories about armed resistance against oppression. Children will read about the five brave Maccabee sons in picture books. Hebrew school students will enact dramatic battles in seasonal plays. Feminists and art lovers will view graphic paintings of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. Musicians will sing about the wars won by God and human beings. We’ll experience a cathartic cycle of fear, excitement, anxiety, relief and joy.
And then we’ll light candles, play silly games, and eat greasy foods.
All my life, the casual militarism of Hanukkah has bothered me. Yes, I understand the stories recount a defensive war. I understand, as history teacher Dr. Meade taught us in middle school, that “neutrality is in the hands of the aggressor.” And that, if you are attacked, victory is better than defeat. And that, in a history that includes many defeats, we celebrate our victories with passion.
Still, I ask: Why is war such an important celebratory motif in our religion? Especially in a tradition that celebrates shalom, peace, and even claims in the priestly blessing that God’s face is peace?
War, says author Mark Juergensmeyer, plays an important social function for religious traditions. War helps create meaning, group belonging, and spiritual boundaries. When a society is mobilized for war, every person plays a role. Together, the group moves towards a goal, sharing meaning and direction. War thus reinforces the power of an in-group. It casts Others as shady figures, from the edges of the known or safe world. By defining allies and enemies, war brings to life religious concepts of pollution and purification, heresy and blasphemy.
But, I ask, can’t these social goals be met with shared positive action? Something like the “moral equivalent of war,” as philosopher William James proposed – a movement of national service that brings meaning, group solidarity, excitement and accomplishment?
Perhaps they can. But, says Juergensmeyer, religions also speak deeply to individual psychology. Even the most privileged human being cannot avoid experiences of chaos and death, whether personal, communal, or cultural. Religion helps tame these experiences, framing them with meaningful stories. Thus, stories like the Hanukkah, Purim and Passover stories symbolically teach that fear and violence are transitional stops on the way to peace and strength. Re-enactment provides comfort, catharsis, and stability.
Yet, I wonder, don’t some celebrators see the stories as more than symbolic? Don’t they instead learn instead to respond to stress with violence? Aren’t many religious people around the world literally enacting the violence depicted in their sacred stories?
Yes, yes, and yes, says Juergensmeyer. Sometimes, when people lose hope in real-world solutions, they find hope in cosmic stories of divinely-inspired struggle. And they try to bring those stories to life. About this process, there is much to learn. Which situations lead people to lose hope? How do interpretations of sacred stories shift? What do these same violent texts teach about ending conflict?
This Hanukkah, I will still tell the stories, read the books, watch the plays, discuss the art, and sing the songs. But I will do so with a different sense of their relevance. Clearly, Hanukkah holds lessons for urgent world questions today: hope, religious symbols, collective psychology, conflict and – possibly – its resolution.
Photo credit: Glenn Fleishman, Shutterstock Creative Commons.