There’s considerable cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major Christian celebration (though this year they are several weeks apart).
For, while Chanukah is often portrayed as a celebration of religious freedom (or even, weirdly, as a salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the Festival of Lights is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters. Chanukah is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.
The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not so much the Seleucid empire as a military power, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabees succeeded in preserving Jewish tradition, and protecting it from dilution.
The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.
And in times like our own, when assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, Chanukah should resonate even more meaningfully to us American Jews.
Release of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000’s data on Jewish affiliation and intermarriage has been delayed for now, but it is hard to imagine that when it comes it will bring good news. Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating converts – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.
Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future. Even leaving aside its inherent Jewish wrongness, consider what Brandeis University researcher Sylvia Barack Fishman discovered: fully half the intermarried couples raising their children as Jews hold Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes.
Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by others who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be slowly happening on its own. Crazily, where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.
The “miracle of the lights,” our tradition teaches, was not an arbitrary sign. Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah – the principles, laws and teachings that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.
Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty. They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.
The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling the Temple menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of the Jewish faith over the past 3000 years. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It is a time for all of us Jews to rededicate ourselves to our heritage.
We have the power to keep ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and to resist the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put down the dreidels and open the books. We can make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about our lives.
And with our will, our study and our observance, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.
We can all have not only a happy Chanukah, but, more importantly, a meaningful one.
© 2002 Rabbi Avi Shafran