What Does Chanukah Mean To You?
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Chanukah is that most pliable of Jewish festivals. Pick a theme, superficial or substantive, and it’s all there in the ancient story of the eight-day observance that begins this year on Tuesday night. It’s a holiday that has as many messages as it does English spellings (Hannukah, Chanukah, etc.) Consider: a minor celebration that happens to fall out in December each year; taking the lowest common denominator approach of the coincidence of calendar, many American Jews have upgraded its significance as our answer to Christmas. “Don’t feel left out,” we tell our kids, surrounded by the sights, sounds and marketing of Santa Claus and Co. “They” (the Christians) “have only one day (for gift-giving) but we have eight.” For some, the history and lessons ofChanukah are less important than its length. Eight days in December? We’ll take it. Bring on the dreidels and latkes. But if you want a serious, anti-assimilation message, you can point to the heroic Maccabees who refused to yield to the dominant Greek culture and fought to preserve their Jewish identity. Surely unpopular at the time for going against the majority of the community, they persevered and kept the spark of Judaism alive. More power to them, and so much for the let’s-embrace-our-neighbors’ attitude, say traditionalists. And Jewish militants are sure to emphasize that the real lesson of Chanukah is that the Maccabees fought back against the restrictions placed on their religious life by the Greeks, who desecrated the Temple. More than that, the rebellion led by Mattithias Maccabee and his sons was not only to defeat the Greeks but the Hellenist Jews at the time as well. In fact, then, the Maccabees, who we praise as brave heroes, went to war against the assimilationist Jewish majority — Jews killing Jews in the name of God and religion. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with that aspect of the Chanukah story, but it’s there and we have to deal with it. Liberal Jews, on the other hand, can take note of the fact that ultimately, the intolerant reign of the Maccabees was short-lived and unsuccessful. In the coda to the story that we focus on about the Maccabee brothers, history tells us that their successors, the Hasmoneans, became corrupt and that the civil war among the Jews was ugly and harmful. The lesson we can take away is that in the end, warfare pitting Jew against Jew can only end in tragedy. No doubt most of us prefer the heartwarming symbolism of lights and faith associated with Chanukah. We like to tell of the small cruse of oil, only enough for one night in the Temple, that miraculously lasts for eight nights. This version of the Chanukah story speaks to us with its images of bringing light to the darkness and believing so deeply in keeping the Jewish spark alive that wondrous, unexplainable things happen to save the day,What better analogy of Jewish survival throughout the ages than of that precious bit of oil that kept on burning, against all odds? It was this rededication of the Temple — Chanukah means consecration — that embodies the notion of the triumph of spiritual values over all else. So there you have it, one historical episode with diverse and even competing themes to take away. Part of the enduring genius and vibrancy of Judaism is the ongoing relevance of its stories and the ability to choose different meanings and messages from its narrative and teachings. (Surely environmentalists can look to the Maccabee story as the preservation of nature’s resources, and Mideast experts can focus on the importance of oil in the region.) The question for us is which theme will we focus on, and what meaning will we give it? Perhaps our greatest challenge is to accept and even embrace each of the disparate elements of the Chanukah story and seek a way to make sense of them together. Our sages understood human nature and that none of us are all good or evil. Unlike other religions we have no saints or sense of perfection on earth. Judaism acknowledges the constant tension between positive and negative impulses and inclinations within each of us. And so it is that the Chanukah story is about the duty to act on our own and the recognition of miracles from above. It’s about the bravery of the Maccabees as well as the limits of warfare; it’s about the darkness of intolerance and the light of deep-seated faith. On Chanukah and throughout the year, we struggle to find balance in our lives, between the everyday and the holy, between waging war in the name of God and appreciating the remarkable accomplishments of man. Let’s hope that the observance of the holiday this year will not only bring nobility to our awareness of those struggles but also allow us to recognize the small miracles in our lives that can transform us. Happy Chanukah. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

10/09/2009 - 10:48

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