Hanukkah: “Extreme Judaism” or Spiritual Enlightenment?
There’s a joke that lots of Jewish holidays have the same story: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!” It’s true for Passover…it’s true for Purim…and it’s true for Hanukkah. It’s true, in the simplest terms, that each of these holidays celebrates a victory over people who sought to destroy us. But each of these holidays has other themes to explore, some of which stand in contrast or even in tension with each other.
Jewish sources have presented different ways of looking at Hanukkah. One important narrative is the idea of pride in being different and the importance of remaining distinct from the larger community. This theme is reflected in the way we teach the traditional history of its origin: a small band of defiant country Jews defied the occupying empire who sought to stamp out Judaism and replace it with Greek religion and culture. The Hellenizers outlawed certain Jewish practices and desecrated the Holy Temple by instituting pagan rituals and sacrifices. The revolutionaries waged guerrilla warfare not only against the Syrians, but also against the Jews who cooperated with them and immersed themselves in Greek culture. The rebel forces, called the Maccabees, prevailed, ultimately recapturing Jerusalem and preparing the Holy Temple for rededication.
This Hanukkah narrative is one that celebrates the outsider, the one who resists “going along with the crowd.” In this story, there is no room for compromise—those Jews who embraced Greek culture and learning were also considered enemies of Judaism. The story glorifies Jewish martyrdom and killing people disloyal to the cause. You might call it “extreme Judaism.”
The account from the Book of Maccabees revels in military victory. It acknowledges God as the source of the Maccabees’ triumph, but the emphasis is on physical strength and courage of body and mind. Since the birth of modern Zionism and the state of Israel, this moment of Jewish history has been heralded as representing a spirit of fierce Jewish independence.
Interestingly, this is not how Hanukkah was characterized through much of Jewish history. The rabbis of the Talmud, writing a few hundred years after the Maccabean revolt, were no longer living in an independent Jewish state. In fact, they themselves were dealing with the same delicate questions of how much to participate in the culture of the world around them. So instead of highlighting Hanukkah as a celebration of national liberation, they chose to emphasize a different facet of Hanukkah: God’s sustaining power, as symbolized by the legend of the oil.
According to the Talmud, when the victorious Hasmoneans went to rededicate the Temple and rekindle the lamp, “they only found one container of oil bearing the seal of the High Priest, but which contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought through it, and they lit with it for eight days. The following year, these days were appointed as a festival with Hallel and thanksgiving.” The discussion goes on to include the idea of “publicizing the miracle” (pirsum ha-nes), whereby the Hanukkah lights are prominently displayed in a window or doorway, which they understood as one of the essential components of Hanukkah observance.
Another way in which Jewish tradition downplayed the militaristic aspects of Hanukkah in favor of its spiritual dimension is through the Torah and Haftarah portions that were chosen for the holiday. In particular, the Haftarah that we will read this Shabbat is taken from the book of Zechariah and involves a vision from an earlier era of the Temple being rebuilt and purified. It concludes with the immortal words, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…”
As is so often true, we don’t have to choose between these two interpretations of Hanukkah. We can take the best of “extreme Judaism”—the integrity to stand up for our convictions—and at the same time cultivate in ourselves the awareness of God’s power to light a path of peace and wholeness for each of us.