The question is: What model of Hanukkah can speak to this generation? Several important issues in Hanukkah’s origins remain central in contemporary culture.
One theme is the clash of the universal with the particular. Hellenism saw itself as the universal human culture, open to all. But Mattathias, Judah Maccabee, and the brave people who saved Judaism were not fighting for a pluralist Judea. They were fighting against the state’s enforcement of Hellenist worship because they believed it was a betrayal of Israel’s covenant with God. When, after decades of fighting, they liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple, they established a state in which Jews could worship God in the right way- not in just any way. Hanukkah is not a model for total separation of church and state.
On the other hand, the Maccabee victory saved particularist Judaism. It preserved the stubborn Jewish insistence on “doing their own thing” religiously; never mind the claims of universalism that only if all are citizens of one world and one faith will there truly be one humanity. By not disappearing, Jews have continued to force the world –down to this day–to accept the limits of centralization. Jewish existence has been a continued stumbling block to whatever political philosophy, religion, or economic system has claimed the right to abolish all distinctions for “the higher good of humanity.” Since the centralizing forces often turned oppressive or obliterated local cultures and dignity, this Jewish resistance to homogenization has been a blessing to humanity and a continuing source of religious pluralism for everybody, not just the Jews.
In this time, too, many universal cultures–Marxism and Communism, triumphalist Christianity, certain forms of liberalism and radicalism, fascism, even monolithic Americanism–have demanded that Jews dissolve and become part of humankind. All these philosophies have claimed that Jews can depend on their principles and structures to provide for Jewish rights. The Maccabee revolution made clear that a universalism that denies the rights of the particular to exist is inherently totalitarian and will end up oppressing people in the name of one humanity.
Universalism must surrender its overweening demands and accept the universalism of pluralism. Only when the world admits that oneness comes out of particular existences, linked through over-arching unities, will it escape the inner dynamics of conformity that add to repression and cruelty.
Those stubborn Chasidim raised a subtle issue of political existence and religious truth that is only coming into its own in the 20th century. Ultimately, the touchstone of human survival will be the ability of people with passionately held beliefs and absolute commitments to allow for pluralism. National peace will turn on the capacity of groups organized around values to allow the inherent dignity of the other into their own structures. How to achieve this respect without surrendering to indifference or group selfishness is the great challenge.
On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate that challenge and affirm the Jewish determination never again to let universal rhetoric (“to make the world safe for. . .”) cripple the Jews’ right to defend themselves. On Hanukkah, Jews urge humankind to take responsibility for the varieties and multiforms of human life. Hanukkah is also a profoundly Zionist holiday, for it asserts the right of politically self-determined existence for each group.
Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.
Pronounced: KHAH-nuh-kah, also ha-new-KAH, an eight-day festival commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the temple. Falls in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually corresponds with December.