Tonight, we will be lighting the sixth candle of Chanukah. Then tomorrow we will have a special haftarah reading from the book of Zechariah whose vision is of the menorah that will be placed in the Temple when its construction is completed. Now to be sure, the menorah envisioned by Zechariah was the seven-branched variety as the festival of Chanukah was still some four-hundred years away.
Recently there has been some controversy surrounding Chanukah in part because of a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. The author, Michael David Lukas, is focused on what he calls the “hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” because the battle for religious freedom was fought primarily by religious fundamentalists led by the Maccabees. This battle was against, in his view, not the Selucid Greek rulers, but the assimilationists. Namely, Jews who identified more as Hellenists than as Jews. As one who identifies more with the Hellenist-Jews, Lukas feels that Chanukah is a celebration against his own personal beliefs and that the only reason to celebrate it is as a buffer against Christmas.
There are many flaws in his argument both historical and religious. However, the one I find quite compelling is the idea that the actions and beliefs of our ancestors must comport with our modern sensibilities in order to make any modern observance relevant and justifiable.
The Maccabees and their followers were certainly fighting to keep alive their version of Judaism, some of which is recognizable to us today and some of which is not.
The Maccabees faced an oppressive regime that sought to ultimately destroy any vestige of Judaism in order to make everyone Greek. There were certainly fellow Jews, who felt more Greek than Jewish, who had no issue with this. But this does not mean it was a war against assimilation. It was instead a war for Judaism and self-determination.
It is a slippery slope when comparing actions in ancient days through the lens of modern conflict. The Maccabees and their followers did not simply feel like they were facing an existential threat in guise of Hellenism, instead they were facing eradication by an oppressive force. And this is where I think Mr. Lukas makes the error in conflating the two.
True, Chanukah is not nor should be viewed as a response to Christmas. It is an observance far greater and more meaningful than another winter holiday. It is not simply about lighting the Chanukiah, spinning the dreidel and eating lots of fried food. It is a celebration of the fact that people throughout our history have fought and died to keep our heritage alive — a heritage we can continue to interpret, celebrate, and make meaningful in modern lives.
There is no hypocrisy in any Jew celebrating Chanukah, or any of our holidays or festivals for that matter. Judaism is a rich and complex religion, heritage, and tradition that both compels us and invites us to make meaning out of it no matter our views or leanings; not just as a response to the popular zeitgeist.
Religion, and especially Judaism, can be messy at times. And that is ok. When you’re a tradition based on five thousand years of history and observance, it’s bound to happen. So I would say, light that Chanukiah, spin the dreidel and eat the latkes without feeling any guilt. We have enough to worry about in today’s world; being able to celebrate our peoples’ fight for religious and national determinism shouldn’t be one of those.
Chag Chanukah Sameach,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff