Hanukkah – Still crazy after all these years

As a little Hanukkah present, here’s a holiday-related excerpt from Nothing Sacred, my 2003 book on practicing religion from the inside out.

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light, is usually recounted as the story of how the Maccabees, the first generation of the Hasmonean Jewish dynasty, fought to reclaim the Holy Temple from the anti-Semitic Greeks. After the Maccabbees won the war, they came upon a tiny amount of oil in the holy temple lamp, but it miraculously lasted for eight days.

We don’t have access to the Hanukkah story in official Jewish literature. The books of the Maccabees were not included in the final version of the Jewish Bible – most likely because the tale they tell doesn’t reflect too well on the Jews as we sometimes like to see ourselves. We don’t generally celebrate military victories as religious holidays, anyway. By consulting the Catholic Bible’s Apocrypha (a collection of Biblical books that didn’t make the Jews’ final cut), or any good history of the period, we learn that the Maccabbean conflicts were largely a civil war.

Israel had been under Greek control since Alexander the Great. Although the Greeks first tolerated the local religions of the people in their provinces, the threat of Roman invasion encouraged less enlightened leaders, like Antiochus IV, to institute a state religion. He campaigned hard to assimilate the Jews. By the second century BCE, most Jews had already surrendered to the Hellenist way of life, even before certain Jewish rituals were declared illegal. The Jewish priests were themselves collaborators, having traded in their sacrificial duties for nude wrestling in a gymnasium built next to the Temple. This led to a new emphasis on Greek ideals such as the perfection of the body and encouraged many Jews to spurn circumcision – which they began to see as the desecration of one of God’s perfect creations. Many Jews hid their circumcisions, and some even sought to reverse them through primitive surgery and other painful methods.

The Hasmoneans were a fundamentalist minority from the hinterlands, who had been watching their decadent urban counterparts in Jerusalem with horror for over a century. But the voluntary reversal of circumcision was the last straw. The Hasmoneans were totalitarian in their own right, believing that all aspects of life must be dictated by the Torah. Their struggle was not against the Greeks but the assimilated Jews, whose altars they destroyed and on whom they performed forced circumcisions. Vigilante groups pushed Priests back into their original roles in the Temple until there was enough official Jewish support for a revolt.

When it was over, the Maccabbees forced the male inhabitants of Jerusalem to undergo circumcision. (Flush with victory, they forced circumcision on the inhabitants of several nearby non-Jewish cities, as well.) They made themselves both the High Priests and the Monarchs of Israel, supplanting the Davidic line. As a result, most Jews saw the Hasmonean refusal to submit to Greek culture and religion as a political struggle, with nationalist overtones. In truth, the war was not so much a rebellion against totalitarianism or anti-Semitism, but against the Jews’ own waning support for circumcision. The Hasmoneans, themselves, became pro-Hellenist just a few decades later, their reign finally ending with King Herod.

The Hanukah story was later revised by the Pharisees and the writers of the Talmud, who were contending with Greek and Roman problems of their own. The miracle of the oil lamp was invented, and the holiday became the “festival of light,” in the spirit of earlier solstice rituals. It was considered a fairly minor holiday, rising in stature only as we have come to live amongst Christians, and felt the need to celebrate something as splendid as Christmas.

How are we to approach such a historically difficult holiday in a way that is meaningful for us today? We might try starting from today’s truth. We all know what it is like to live in a country where we can’t really participate in the biggest holiday of the year, and many of us have the sense that the Hanukah of “eight nights of gifts” is a cobbled together substitute for its Christian counterpart. Many of us feel somewhat left out of what the rest of our country is celebrating. But, however assimilated we are, for many of us – like my dotcom friend Eric – to bring a Christmas tree into our homes crosses a kind of line. Assimilation to American culture was supposed to mean pluralism, not the assumption of Christianity.

In this context, the performance of Hanukah today recapitulates the historical event on which it was based. The Maccabbees, though staunch and violent fundamentalists, were fighting for the right to maintain a unique religious identity. Antiochus had offered the Jews complete equality, if only they would adopt the Greek way. How many of you have friends who simply don’t understand why you won’t celebrate Christmas? They probably tell you that it isn’t really a religious holiday, and that you should simply give in. Still, some of us can’t or won’t.

The celebration of Hanukah is another assertion of distinctiveness in the face of the forces of assimilation. We may accept that we live in a largely Christian culture, but won’t go so far as to celebrate the birth of their messiah. It just goes against our grain. By placing a menorah in the window, we join in the spirit of seasonal holidays in our own way, while remembering a much graver historical confrontation with the same basic issues.