What is Hanukkah really all about?

HanukkahRESIZED

A familiar saying at this time of year has it that when all the Jews spell Hanukkah the same way, Deliverance will truly have come! (Other variants include Hanukah, Chanukah, Hanuka, Khanuka, Khanike, and more.)

The joke is telling because like most things, the holiday can be viewed from multiple perspectives. For many years Jews considered it a minor holiday, observed with small gifts for the children and the lighting of candles on a menorah each of the eight nights of the season. It is no coincidence that Hanukkah is called the "Festival of Lights."

There's no mystery in understanding why Jews, and perhaps most peoples, celebrate a holiday of light at the time of the winter solstice. The Yule log, the Christmas lights, the evergreen, the Kwanzaa candelabrum, are all cheerful reminders of hope and promise in the cycle of rebirth that will return in the spring with the New Year. When Americans wish one another a generalized "Happy Holidays," we express a sincere universality of shared warmth amidst our collective cold.

Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday (until modern times) with verifiable historical roots. It commemorates the revolt of the Maccabees in 167-164 BCE (Before the Common Era, as Jews prefer to say), against the Greek occupation of Jerusalem and Palestine. The Greeks had imposed the rule of law, philosophy, religion, debate and governance at odds with traditional Jewish practice. The Maccabean rebellion was directed as much against Greek hegemony as against fellow Jews they accused of becoming overly "Hellenized," giving up circumcision, for example, eating pork or engaging in nude sporting matches.

Although celebrated for having conducted the first successful documented revolution for "national liberation" and religious freedom, the Maccabees are also disparaged by history for having established a corrupt dynasty of priestly kings, a theocratic mixing of "church and state." Later rabbinical authorities looked back on this disastrous period and invented the charming story of the miracle of the vial of oil that lasted for eight days, trying to convert the significance of the holiday into one of awe of God and his wonders, rather than military victory.

Incidentally, the Hanukkah story inspired the American colonists in their struggle against King George III. How could people so profoundly influenced by Christian theology oppose the divine right of kings? Well, just look at the First Book of Maccabees and there you have it: "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." And from that principle, how many people of faith, and entire movements for civil rights and freedom, have taken a potent lesson! (Needless to say, right-wing ideologues also cite such passages - one of the dangers of relying on Biblical literalism.)

In modern times, defenders of the West Bank occupation cite the Maccabean spirit as an expression of the militarist solution to Israel's survival. Curiously, those who most loudly insist on the definition of Israel as a "Jewish state" thus fly directly in the face of the many later generations of rabbis who emphasized that well-known passage in Zechariah 4:6 that warns us, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts."

So the controversy over the essential meaning of Hanukkah continues and perhaps can never be pinned down definitively. Perhaps it's best left as a joyous holiday for children that brings the Jewish component to the bountiful table of multiculturalism as we anticipate the return of sunny days.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/scazon/ / CC BY 2.0

This article originally appeared on PeoplesWorld.org Dec.14, 2009.

 


 

 

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  • Probably the most wonderful books written about this period of history is Howard Fast's novel "My Glorious Brothers". Adults and children over 12 will love reading it and those a bit younger will enjoy having parents read it to them. Rereading it this year gave me such a powerful closeness to the people and their struggle which I can hardly believe was 2000 years ago. The battle of the Maccabees was not just a few brave men but whole families, women and thousands of villages that took to the hills and suffered for many years. A much more realistic vision of this piece of history!!

    Posted by viviana, 12/25/2012 7:37pm (2 years ago)

  • I grew up in Israel where we all spelled the holiday the same way in the Hebrew, (actually Aramaic) alphabet.
    We were taught in school that Khanuka was not really a holiday since it was not in the scriptures, but a celebration like May Day or Independence Day.
    Since the founding of Israel it has been a big Zionist holiday. After all it commemorates the struggle that led to the only historically documented Jewish independent state in Palestine since biblical days, and it was done by force of arms. The documented existence of Jewish states in Mesopotamia and Yemen don't fit the Zionist Narrative.
    What's also omitted is that it was the liberation of Judea, the land of the Jews, and not of the Israelites whose ten tribes have disappeared from history. Judea was the area inhabited by Judaeans (Jews in English).
    Judea is the area around Jerusalem and the southern part of the West Bank and some of the hills in Central Israel today. It did not include what is now Tel Aviv, nor most of today's Israel or West Bank and none of Gaza.
    The rest of Palestine was inhabited by other peoples like Samaritans, Aramaians, and Phoenicians. Later Jewish Kings conquered more territory and converted people to Judaism by the sword.


    Posted by Joe Bernick, 01/07/2012 12:08am (3 years ago)

  • I grew up in Israel where we all spelled the holiday the same way in the Hebrew, (actually Aramaic) alphabet.
    We were taught in school that Khanuka was not really a holiday since it was not in the scriptures, but a celebration like May Day or Independence Day.
    Since the founding of Israel it has been a big Zionist holiday. After all it commemorates the struggle that led to the only historically documented Jewish independent state in Palestine since biblical days, and it was done by force of arms. The documented existence of Jewish states in Mesopotamia and Yemen don't fit the Zionist Narrative.
    What's also omitted is that it was the liberation of Judea, the land of the Jews, and not of the Israelites whose ten tribes have disappeared from history. Judea was the area inhabited by Judaeans (Jews in English).
    Judea is the area around Jerusalem and the southern part of the West Bank and some of the hills in Central Israel today. It did not include what is now Tel Aviv, nor most of today's Israel or West Bank and none of Gaza.
    The rest of Palestine was inhabited by other peoples like Samaritans, Aramaians, and Phoenicians. Later Jewish Kings conquered more territory and converted people to Judaism by the sword.


    Posted by Joe Bernick, 01/07/2012 12:05am (3 years ago)

  • Thanks to brother Art Perlo for his timely, succinct, comment.
    As our Du Bois might say, we are of "one blood and one bone", 2 Sam 5:1, Acts 17:26.
    Humanity is one.
    We are the Palestinians.
    Peace.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/30/2011 6:11am (3 years ago)

  • Every people and every nation has a mixed history. The challenge is to draw inspiration from the positive aspect of our traditions, and learning lessons from the negatives.

    Hanukkah can still be celebrated today, not simply as a children's holiday, but a celebration of national liberation. This is not the same as celebrating the military victory in the sense of the present Israeli occupiers of the West Bank / Gaza Strip. Drawing from the Maccabees "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," Hanukkah should be seen not only as a celebration of past liberation struggles, but a call to present-day solidarity with oppressed people, and most particularly with the Palestinian people suffering under an oppressive foreign occupation.

    Posted by Art Perlo, 12/23/2011 10:11am (3 years ago)

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