Hanukkah isn’t about lighting candles, clogging your arteries with fried food, playing dreidel, exchanging presents, or eating cheap chocolate in the shape of faux ancient coins.
Hanukkah is a minor holy day in the Jewish liturgical calendar made great because of its proximity to Christmas. This is sad for two reasons: first because it robs Hanukkah of its true potential as one of the most challenging of holy days, and second because it reduces the observance of Hanukkah to spiritual kitsch with Jewish families desperately trying to make Hanukkah as cool as Christmas.
Other than sharing a common origin in the winter solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas could not be more different. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, the Christian Messiah; Hanukkah marks the military victory of a fundamentalist Jewish movement led by the Maccabees over progressive Jews and their Greco-Syrian allies who welcomed Hellenism (Greek culture) and sought to integrate its best ideas into Judaism. The story of a single day’s oil miraculously burning for eight days thus allowing the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the defeat of the Seleucid (Syrian) military, while ancient, has come to replace history, and, in so doing, rob Hanukkah of its deeper meaning and importance.
Hanukkah isn’t about lighting candles, clogging your arteries with fried food, playing dreidel, exchanging presents, or eating cheap chocolate in the shape of faux ancient coins. Hanukkah is about choosing sides in an endless and ongoing culture war between traditionalists and liberals. The question that should be at the core of every Hanukkah celebration is this: Which side are you on: the traditionalists or the liberals?
Given my interest in Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, the master of Hellenistic Judaism, and my love for the progressive Jewish Wisdom tradition and its canon: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach, I suspect I would have opposed the Maccabees and stood with the progressives. Putting my own preference aside, however, let me suggest that anyone looking to up the level of discourse over Hanukkah this year wrestle with the following questions during the holiday:
- Given that Hanukkah reflects a civil war between fundamentalist and liberal Jews, if you lived in Maccabean times, which side would you be on?
- The Maccabees and their opponents put their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren at risk for their respective Judaisms. In what ways are you willing to do the same?
- The Maccabees and their opponents were willing to kill and have their children and grandchildren kill for their respective Judaisms. In what ways are you willing to do the same?
- What aspects of Judaism are you willing to sacrifice yourself, your children and your grandchildren in order to preserve?
- How do you, your children and your grandchildren live these aspects of Judaism in your daily lives?
I admit, these are not the questions you want to ask of little kids, and they may in fact make Hanukkah even less of a bulwark against the seductive allure of Christmas, but a week devoted to questions such as these is a week one grows into rather than out of, and that, ultimately, may produce the kind of Judaism for which you truly long.
More advice from Rabbi Rami on Hanukkah, from the print issue of Spirituality & Health.
Q: The Hanukkah story is mired in war and religious fanaticism. As a secular Jew who despises both, why should I bother lighting the Hanukkah menorah?
A: Rabbi Rami: The Talmud (the anthology of ancient rabbinic teachings) instructs us to place the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) so that its light can be seen from the street (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). The idea, as I understand it, is to make your home a beacon of light in a time of darkness, natural (winter solstice) and otherwise. So I urge everyone—not just Jews—to set their streets aglow with hope by lighting a hanukkiah of their own as an act of resistance to the despotism, fear, ignorance, violence, and illiberalism arising at home and around the globe.