Which Chanukah are YOU Celebrating? Part One

I learned about Chanukah from a big white book my parents read to me called (as far I can remember) The Story of Hanukkah. In it, the story was, as is the case with children’s books, straightforward. No doubts, no questions of historical accuracy. Fine for a five-year old. Funny thing is, my understanding of the story of Chanukah didn’t change much through Hebrew School, day school, or yeshiva. Only as an adult, a rabbi and a Jewish educator did I approach the story with a more critical eye, and with a recognition of the multi-faceted holiday that Chanukah really seems to be.
At first glance the Chanukah is about the following: Alexander the Great conquers the land of Israel. While taking control of the political governance of the land, he allows the priestly group (Kohanim) to continue to lead the ritual and religious life of the people. After his death, the kingdom is divided. In a few generations one group, the Seleucids, are led by Antiochus IV. As the result of a series of events, he comes to back a group of Hellinized Jews against the traditionalists. Antiochus outlaws many Jewish practices, including circumcision, appoints his own kohen, and introduces Zeus as a focus of religious life. A war erupts, led by the Maccabee leaders, a priestly family. The traditionalists emerge victorious over the Hellinized Jews and the Seleucid rulers. As the revolutionaries take control and look to rededicate the Temple to service of one God, they discover that there is insufficient pure olive oil to last until new oil can be obtained. Miraculously, one container of oil lasts the entire eight days it takes to obtain new oil.

Second glance at the story is a little more complicated. It seems that the first two Books of the Maccabees – which date from the era of the revolt or shortly after – as well as some midrashim relate the story of the uprising. In these works, the victorious rebels celebrate the holiday of Sukkot at this time of the year, as they were engaged in war when the holiday had actually fallen on the calendar. Chanukah becomes and eight day festival because Sukkot (with Shemini Atzeret) is. And the menorah part of the story is that upon entering the temple, the Maccabees and their followers fashion spears left by the Seleucid warriors into a menorah and light it. The Al Ha-Nisim prayer appears to largely follow this version of the story, highlighting the victory in battle as the miracle.

Hundreds of years later, the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) describes a different facet of the holiday. There, the war is spoken of, but emphasis is on a newer story: at the rededication of the Temple, not enough pure oil was available to burn for the week that it would take to obtain new oil. The miracle emphasized by the Talmudic text is that the one container of pure olive oil, enough for one day’s lighting, burns instead for eight day. Is it possible that the rabbis develop, or at least emphasize, this religious miracle rather than a military one, in order to impress the dominant powers, particularly Rome, that the Judeans to not plan more uprisings? My guess is yes.
But that’s just the beginning. In addition to the two ancient versions of the story, contemporary versions emerge. To be continued…
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One response

  1. .It seems that there isn’t much you can do to separate a pesorn from his beloved preconceptions: apparently, some reporters and news editors already “knew” that the rabbi is against the trees, and once they knew that, nothing–not even their own reportage–was going to change the way they present the story.Even now, when the trees are back up, the rabbi promised not to sue (at least not this year), and the airport has (sort of) intimated that they may respond positively to his request…. next year (maybe), the media continues to spin the “War Against Christmas” story and the hate mail continues to pour in.The irony is that, for the last 25 years, there has been an ongoing debate within the Jewish community on the very issue of religious displays in public places during the winter holiday season–with Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues squarely on the very opposite side of the debate than the side that’s being attributed to him.The sight of one menorah burning proudly through the night will do more for Jewish continuity than the removal of 1000 Christmas trees… There are 300 million people living in America, a large majority of whom are proud Christians; among them live about 5 million Jews. Come December, trees and other holiday paraphernalia blossom forth throughout the length and breadth of the land. Many Jews feel challenged by this phenomenon. “How can I raise my child to feel secure in and proud of his Jewishness,” they wonder, “when he’s confronted by these displays in every store window, hotel lobby and village square? How can I myself avoid feeling resentful, left out, discriminated against?”Not long ago, the answer for many was: We’ll fight the trees! We’ll take them to court, we’ll cite the Establishment Clause, and get all religious symbols removed from the public domain.Chabad-Lubavitch took a different tack. Don’t fight to remove the trees–put up menorahs! Don’t direct your efforts to make America “less Christian”–work to celebrate America’s freedom to encourage Jews in their Jewishness. Would not a single positive message be so much more effective than a thousand un-messages? Would not the sight of a single menorah burning proudly through the night do more for Jewish pride and Jewish continuity than the removal of a thousand trees?Today, most of the Jewish community has been won over to this view. But it wasn’t so long ago that Chabad-Lubavitch encountered vehement opposition for spearheading the “shower them with light” approach. I remember one particular year in the mid 1980’s when I was involved in helping organize the activities surrounding the public menorah lightings during Chanukah in Seattle (yes, the very same Seattle). A national Jewish organization took the city to court to try and force them to revoke their permission for Chabad-Lubavitch to put up the menorah. They were actually quite apologetic to us: “Please understand, we have nothing against your menorah, but we’re suing the city to make them take down the Christmas trees and cre8ches, so in all fairness, we need to fight the menorah too…”So, irony of ironies, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi trying to put up a menorah is portrayed in hundreds of newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to coast as… the man who made SeaTac Airport remove the trees.Shamefully, the airport is still obfuscating about why it is one of the only places in the United States to deny a menorah request. Hopefully in the short time left between now and Chanukah they will “see the light.”But if there’s a lesson here for the rest of us, it may simply be: don’t presume. Don’t think that you already know what your fellow human being is all about, what he or she stands for, what s/he wants to achieve. If we’d listen to each other more, we might actually like what we hear.Happy Chanukah! http://www.chabad.org

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