WHAT IS CHANUKAH?
Whenever I teach adults the story behind Chanukah they expect to hear the Sunday School version, which emphasizes the bravery of the Maccabee freedom fighters who rose up against the wicked Greek pagans. Exhausted but triumphant, they defeated the heathens, cleansed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and prepared to relight the ancient seven branched gold candelabrum. As we all heard as children, there was only enough oil for the light to burn one day. According to Talmudic legend the small flask of oil miraculously burned for eight days allowing sufficient time for new pure olive oil to be prepared. The sages teach: Nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there! But this is not the story I told them! So read on, there is more!
Ever the revisionist, I told them a more accurate version of the Chanukah story: Chanukah is really the story of two Jewish factions fighting amongst themselves over what type of Judaism would be practiced in ancient Jerusalem. One group, called the “priestly faction” favored replacing traditional Judaism with Greek customs and religious ideas. (Hellenistic culture was predominant in the civilized world of 165 BCE). The other group, mostly farmers and artisans favored the retention of ancient worship, the use of the Hebrew language and the expulsion of the Syrian government.
At that time the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was controlled by two priestly families who competed for dominance. In order to break the stalemate one side invited the Greek-Syrian Emperor Antiochus IV to send his troops to Jerusalem and install their candidate as Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Sensing the advantage Antiochus complied and occupied the entire city. After a furious battle the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks, cleansed the Temple and established themselves as a ruling family. Thus, the story recorded in Maccabees I and II.
In essence then the story of Chanukah is really not that of paganism versus monotheism (the Jews against the heathens) but, the story of assimilationist Jews (the Jerusalem priests) against the common people, who preferred the “traditions of their fathers.” This is the part of the story that is seldom, if ever told. Ironically, it is, in my judgment, the most compelling part of the story for modern Jews.
We struggle with many of the same issues which faced our ancestors over two thousand years ago: How can we remain a distinct people and religion while also living in a modern world? What does it mean for our future as a viable group when our children can name Santa’s rain deer more readily than the Five Books of Moses?
These are serious questions for every Jewish person. Chanukah, then as now, challenges us to think through, to evaluate what our Jewishness and Judaism mean to us. Is being an ethnic or cultural Jew enough? How do I add spiritual depth to my life? Do I need to join with other Jews so that I am counted as part of the community? How do I raise my children to be Jewish in a two faith household? What does God expect of me?
If you would like to discuss these or related questions feel free to call me at Temple Menorah. Happy Chanukah.