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Correcting Mistakes About Hanukkah

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Despite extensive media coverage and rising levels of public partying, the holiday of Hanukkah still causes confusion among both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. No, it’s not a festival of tolerance or a good-natured celebration of freedom of religion.  In fact, the authentic meaning of Hanukkah actually counts as far less politically correct than commonly assumed — and far more appropriate as a counterweight to the joyously seductive, warm-hearted and near universal embrace of Christmas.

The two biggest mistakes about Hanukkah involve the twin assumptions that the holiday honors the principles of religious liberty and that the central miracle commemorated in Jewish homes recalls a magical jar of oil that lasted longer than expected. Neither of these ideas originates from Jewish tradition or connects with the authentic celebration of the Hanukkah festival under Jewish law.

Of course, it might count as far more appealing to modern sensibilities if the ancient Maccabee warriors conformed to the ideals of today’s pluralism but the historical and religious record show a very different approach. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of religious zealots in 163 BC who liberated Jerusalem and its holy temple from Syrian-based Greek imperialists and their Hellenized Jewish allies. The insurrectionists weren’t merely demanding the right to practice their own religion according to their conscience — though that right had, in fact, been cruelly denied. They meant to drive the Greeks and their Jewish, accommodationist allies out of their holy places and their holy city.  These Hasmonean fighters weren’t fans of compromise, or blending of cultural traditions. They fought for religious purity and clarity, not pluralism.

The only aspect of traditional Jewish liturgy specifically associated with Hanukkah is the “Al ha Nissim/On the Miracles” declaration inserted into the morning, afternoon and evening prayers during all eight days of the holiday. This portion of the liturgy thanks God for “the victories, and the battles which you performed for our forefathers in those days, at this season” and describes how “the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of your will.”  Traditional Jews praise God for “delivering the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of your Torah.”

Far from a victory for tolerance, or for the ideals of moral relativism, Hanukkah counts as a commemoration of fervent, unwavering religious commitment and Jewish particularism. It emphasizes the ancient covenant demanding that Jews differentiate themselves from their pagan neighbors – and oppressors. To the frustration of most Jewish Americans (who tilt irrationally but stubbornly to the left), this is a holiday far more in line with underlying messages of today’s religious right than the secularist sentiments of the ACLU.

The second mistake about Hanukkah involves the “miracle of the oil” — the well-known story about the Maccabees rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem and finding only one container of olive oil to light the sacred Menorah. That small jar of oil, however, lasted for an astonishing eight days, until more oil could arrive to keep the “eternal light” of the Temple from flickering to extinction. It’s a lovely story, taken from traditional sources, and it’s often used to make reassuring and appropriate points about Jewish survival: like the little jar of oil, nobody thought we could last for more than one day (or one era) but we have confounded expectations by lasting for millennia and maintaining our national existence through all eras of history.

But the tale and its meaning leave one obvious question unanswered. Jerusalem in the second century BC was a big city — as it is today. The surrounding countryside contained an abundance of olive groves, as it does today. In this heavily-populated area, how could the victorious Maccabees fail to find enough olive oil to keep a single lamp alight for more than a day?

The answer actually goes to the deeper meaning of the holiday. The problem with the oil the religious rebels found when they recaptured the Temple didn’t involve its quantity, but its quality – in particular, its purity. There was, presumably, plenty of olive oil in Judea, but after the Syro-Greek occupation, none of it met the exacting standards of sanctity, in both preparation and storage, demanded for Temple use. Exposure to the idol worship that formerly prevailed in the sanctuary would have been considered contaminating, making the fuel unacceptable and unusable. The miracle involved both the good fortune of finding one uncontaminated jar of oil to light the Menorah immediately, as well as its ability to last until new oil could be produced from scratch that met the rigorous requirements of Jewish law.

In other words, we celebrate not just the need to keep the light alive through any means necessary, but the specific demand to light the Temple (and through it, the world) through the demanding standards of Torah.

Naturally, it’s easier for parents today to concentrate on latkes (potato pancakes), dreidls(spinning tops), Hanukkah gelt (pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins) and the over-the-top, inauthentic American tradition of giving a new gift each of the eight nights. It’s tougher to teach kids about the real Maccabees, who were, in fact, tough and courageous people, determined to root out enemies – particularly internal enemies – to the maintenance of their ancient faith. But remembering the true Hanukkah spirit requires a distinctive emphasis on religious rigor and the pursuit of purity, uncontaminated by pagan or secular influence. In other words, the point of the holiday is something much more than offering some exotic Middle Eastern or Eastern European version of Christmas, with its agreeable peace-on-earth-to-people-of-good-will theme.

The Hanukkah message emphasizes that we’re supposed to be different – no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable or challenging that might be.

This column appeared at TruthRevolt.org on December 10, 2014. 

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