Tis the season to be Jewish; menorahs and latkes abound, and oil (for each, unfortunately) will soon flow like water in countless Jewish homes. Chanukah, thank G-d, is once again upon us.
It has become fashionable to attribute the popularity of the Jewish festival of lights — second among American Jews only to Passover — to the fact that the winter Jewish holiday tends to roughly coincide with a major Western Christian celebration. But to see Chanukah as nothing more than a foil to another faith’s observance is to miss the Jewish festival’s conceptual essence. Chanukah may well resonate with contemporary Jews for a deeper reason — because it speaks, perhaps more than any other Jewish calendar-milestone, directly and powerfully to us.
Chanukah has been appropriated by a host of Jewish leaders and pundits for their own, often partisan, purposes. Last Chanukah, for instance, a New York news radio station repeatedly featured a Reform rabbi’s remarkable declaration that since Chanukah commemorates a victory over an oppressive regime bent on undermining the Jewish religious tradition, the holiday should be regarded as a celebration of religious pluralism. Several years earlier, a widely-published columnist (Orthodox, as it happens) suggested that the festival of lights is an affirmation of the need for tolerance.
Chanukah, however, isn’t celebratory Silly-Putty. It has a long, deep and clear tradition in classical Jewish texts, from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters. And, on its most basic level, it addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance, admirable though those concepts may be in their proper place, but Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by the contemporary Jewish world.
For the rededication of the Temple from which the holiday takes its name (Chanukah means “dedication”) and the military victory over the Seleucids that preceded it were unmistakable expressions of resistance to assimilation.
The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not the Seleucid empire as an occupation force, 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”, wholly secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph over assimilation. The Maccabees succeeded, in other words, in preserving Jewish tradition, in drawing lines.
And so the miracle of the lights, our tradition teaches, was hardly arbitrary. Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil. For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah, the teachings and laws that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.
Even the custom of playing dreidel, sources explain, 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 rightfully regarded as the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah in pairs or groups; 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.
Is it mere chance, too, that Chanukah seems so intriguing to contemporary Jews, so very many of whom are threatened with assimilation, not coercive, to be sure, but no less threatening to Jewish survival? Or might that coincidence be laden with meaning?
Meaning, and a message: Jews can resist the temptation to melt into the surrounding culture. They have the ability to put away the dreidels, take out the books and make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about their lives.
May all we Jews have a happy, and meaningful, Chanukah.
© 2002 Forward