Tomorrow night begins the first night of Hanukah, when Jews around the world will place menorahs with lit candles in their front windows for all the world to see.
I’ve always felt ambivalent about Hanukah. American Jews seem to have elevated Hanukah far out of all proportion considering its role as a minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. I’ve always thought this was because Jews felt left out of the Christmas holiday. They used Hanukah as a sort of consolation prize.
On the other hand, Hanukah is a graceful and lovely holiday. Lighting candles and watching them burn brightly in the dark while the cold winter rages outside always struck me as a brave and beautiful ritual. The eating of hot, sizzling potato latkes, the spinning of the dreidel and the sharing of golden Hanukah gelt (chocolate money) is also great fun, especially for children.
Last night, I heard an especially convincing rabbinic drash given by Rabbi Ted Falcon, which put Hanukah into even deeper perspective for me. The holiday’s history goes something like this: after Alexander the Great died, his kingdom was divided. The Greek Selucids took over the region of ancient Israel. Unlike Alexander, they did not believe in allowing subject peoples to practice their ethnic and religious heritage. The Holy Temple was defiled and Jewish practice was suppressed.
The Jewish priestly class, led by Matathias and his family, began what turned out to be a highly successful guerilla war against the Selucids and their tyrannical king, Antiochus. But the Maccabean warriors killed not only Greeks, they also killed Jews who they viewed as collaborators (or “Hellenizers”) with the enemy. It was a long, bloody conflict.
The irony of history is that these Jewish warriors founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which in time did all the evil, rotten things that they accused the Hellenizers of doing. The corruption and decadence of the Hasmoneans later led to Israel’s fall into the hands of the Romans.
The Talmudic rabbis, for one, felt even more uncomfortable about Hanukah than I do. When they met in Yavneh around 80 CE (that’s AD to the rest of you) to codify the books of the Bible, there were NO votes to include the Books of the Maccabees (the books which tell the Hanukah story). They are now included in the Apocrypha. Not only did the rabbis feel extraordinarily uncomfortable with the gore and mayhem described in these works; but the development of the rabbinate itself was an act of rebellion against the corrupt Hasmonean rulers. Rabbis were a learned class who earned their positions not through heredity or privilege, but through learning and a type of democratic elective choice.
The rabbis tried to turn the Hanukah holiday inside out in terms of expressing its meaning to the Jewish people: instead of a holiday marking bloodthirsty deeds of nationalist fury, the rabbis created the mythical miracle of the Holy Temple’s perpetually-burning lamp which only had a single day’s worth of oil remaining; but which somehow managed to burn for eight days until new oil could be found. Thus, Hanukah became a purely spiritual holiday focusing on the lights instead of Maccabean glory.
After the founding of the State of Israel, when Zionism came to dominate the thinking of world Jewry, Zionists turned Hanukah back into a holiday which highlighted the Maccabean struggle against tyranny and oppression. Hanukah for them became the prototype of Jewish nationalist struggle against those who would destroy our people. They were, of course, thinking of the Hitler (as Antiochus the tyrant), the Holocaust and the creation of Israel as the modern successors to the Hanukah holiday.
While this Hanukah mythmaking might have been helpful to those who survived a Nazi Holocaust and given them great consolation, it leaves some Jews today uncomfortable with an Israel which is no longer merely a champion of Jewish liberty; but rather an oppressor of Palestinian rights and all in the name of Jewish nationalism. Some of us do not believe that Jewish nationalism in and of itself must deny Palestinian nationalism in order for the State of Israel to survive and thrive.
I’ve often heard people say the only solution to the conflict is force (e.g. “those Arabs only understand force” or “You peaceniks don’t understand that there’s no one on the other side who wants to make peace with you”). At moments like this it is instructive to remember God’s clarion call in Isaiah: “Not by might, not by power; but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” The original Hebrew states this much more sonorously: לא בכוח ולא בחיל כי אם ברוחי אמר יי צבאות . Note the three words (choach ‘power’ or ‘might’, chayil ‘valor’ or ‘power’ and ruchi ‘my spirit’ or ‘my breath’) in rapid succession with the “ch” sound. This is not the harsh ‘ch’ sound of western languages (especially German). Rather, it is the fluid, propulsive sound of the Middle Eastern ‘ch’ which (unlike in western languages) requires the speaker to exhale a breath as he/she forms the sound. The final word, ruchi is the climactic word in the passage and as such it trumps the earlier words “choach” and “chayil” as if to say that spirit trumps power in Jewish tradition. That breath of air in pronouncing the final ruchi reinforces in sound the deeper meaning of the quotation.
So tomorrow night, let us think of lights burning brightly against the winter cold. Let us remember in this coldest and darkest time of year, that the candles of Hanukah give us hope for brightness and warmth and the return of life in the coming Spring.
For another interesting take on the holiday, I recommend Head Heeb’s Ocho Kandelikas. Jonathan is running one of the more interesting blogs around that encompasses (like mine) a Jewish sensibility.
Thanks for this excellent post. I have similar mixed feelings about Chanukah, and wrangled with them in my own blog this past week (and at this season last year). I like the drash from Rabbi Falcon.