Monday, November 21, 2011

Finding the True Meaning of Hanukkah

Hanukkah - Photo by Kara Allyson

Hanukkah seems like an odd time to contemplate the fate of the Jewish people, yet each year at this time I find myself caught up in questions about our true role in the world.

Perhaps it is because this holiday always seems to carry a mixed message for me. Each year, we light the eight candles of the hanukkiah to celebrate the rededication of the Temple. In doing so, we recount the story that is at the heart of Hanukkah and in fact, every festival we honor as Jews throughout the year: that it was God’s power that allowed the one cruse of oil to last for eight days of light within the Temple, and God’s power that continues to sustain us as Jews.

Detail on the Knesset Menorah - Deror Avi
Yet ironically, when we recount the Maccabees’ triumph in reclaiming the Temple we seem to go out of our way to avoid acknowledging another part of that tale – the part that talks about the human toll that was expended in getting to the Temple and claiming their victorious battle against the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

So each year I find myself debating issues about Hanukkah.  Not about why we celebrate its miracle, but why many Jewish homes traditionally celebrate the Festival of Lights as a children’s holiday: low-key, focused around a nine-stick hanukkiah, rather than regaling the unlikely triumphs of an oppressed people.

Isn’t it important that a band of Jews managed to reinstate their freedom by fighting back against their oppressors? Doesn’t this qualify as a kind of David and Goliath story in which determination and dedication as Jews wins out against cultural suppression? Given our history as a people, shouldn’t we be celebrating the victory of that battle as the true meaning of Hanukkah?

Photo by Woody Ellen
The answer that one finds when researching these questions says volumes about the rabbinic viewpoints that uphold this yearly festival – and about the principles that through time, have guided our survival as a people.

“The message of Hanukkah is expressed in the prophetic words of the Haftarah of the Sabbath of Hanukkah,” says Rabbi Isaac Klein in his book, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts (Zachariah 4:6).” [1]

Taken literally, this eloquent phrase reminds us that we are nothing if we are not God’s people. That historical spiritual connection has always defined who we are – even for many secular Jews who may observe the traditions of Passover, light the candles each December and go to synagogue at Yom Kippur. Our traditions as Jews answer to a higher power, a consciousness about what is right and what is wrong, and an identity that is uniquely fashioned by how we regard our relationship with our history.

Judah Maccabeus 1533 - Pub. Dom. (US)
The Maccabees' battle is not part of the story we tell of Hanukkah because violence has never really been what defines us as a people. Even during the Jewish people’s most trying times, it has been our power to resist oppression – not conquer lands as the Maccabees are said to have later done – that has defined our survival. We attribute that power to something greater than ourselves, but we recognize that it is our sense of tzedek, justice and fairness that maintains our equilibrium as Jews. We may celebrate the demise of the Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea during Passover, and we may recount the story of Haman’s foiled plot during Purim, but in each one of these cases we attribute our safety to a higher power, not to our physical prowess. Our festival celebrations are a reflection of what has through millennia and many struggles, sustained Judaism.

“Only the rabbinical kind of power – the power not of rock but water, fluid and soft from moment to moment and yet irresistible over the long run – had survived,” writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow in his explanation of why the ancient rabbis omitted descriptions of the Maccabees’ battles in the Gemara. “Only the rabbinical kind of power had protected and preserved Jewish peoplehood.”[2]  

It is our fierce desire for survival as a Jewish people that defines our holidays and observances each season, and ultimately our identity as Jews.

15th cent. Hanukkiah excavated from Lorca, Spain - Nanosanchez

This year as I light the candles at Hanukkah with my family I will remember the Maccabees’ courage and sacrifice during their battle to reclaim the Temple, as I always do each year. But I will do so knowing that Hanukkah’s true meaning lies in how we express our connection with that history that ultimately defines who we are as a people. 

[1] Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.
[2]  Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Beacon Press, 1990.

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