Hanukkah Reclaimed: A Contemporary Political and Religious Perspective

hanukkiahBy Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As an event in Jewish history, Hanukkah introduces a range of challenging questions and core religious and political insights. There is only minimal reference to this holiday in the Talmud, and there are no citations within the Mishnah. The commentaries actually begin with the question, “What is Hanukkah?” as if to suggest its import had been forgotten or its purpose uncertain.

“They celebrated it for eight days with gladness like Sukkot” (II Maccabees 10:6). Could it be that the first Hanukkah was in fact a postponed celebration of Sukkot, as a result of the long drawn out guerrilla warfare being waged by the Maccabees against their enemies?

The very name “Maccabee” can be seen as a contraction of “Mi kamocha Ba’eilim Adonai,” “Who is like you, O God” (Exodus, 15:11), thereby adding legitimacy and status to this revolutionary warrior.

There are a number of themes defining Hanukkah’s religious and political meaning. The clash of the universal with the particular reflects one of these core ideas. Hellenism was itself understood as a universal cultural tradition. We must remember that Mattathias was not fighting for a pluralist religious tradition but rather his cause could best be understood as a battle against Hellenism, by seeking to restore Israel’s distinctive covenant with God. We are reminded that fellow Jews did not uniformly embrace the actions undertaken by the Maccabees, giving rise to political tensions amongst the various factions within the Jerusalem community.

As a result Hanukkah can be seen as a victory for a particularistic religious expression, just as it must not be interpreted as a model of total separation of religion from state. Indeed, the Maccabean story reminds us that “a universalism that denies the rights of the particular to exist is inherently totalitarian.” As an outcome, universalism is comprised of the pluralistic expressions of different faith and political traditions. Conformity of belief denies the uniqueness and character of the individual and the inherent views found within our communities.

According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “Hanukkah points to the fragility of historical redemption and the ambiguity of its messengers and leaders.” Greenberg would add: “The lesson of the Maccabees’ rulings is that authority in Jewish law flows from the community of Israel, and not necessarily from official rulings.”

Giving to each candle a special meaning or value just as the dreidel spin carries numerical values offers another interesting twist to this celebratory event, allowing the participant a degree of latitude in creating one’s own interpretation.

Even the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles would come under review. In Tractate Shabbat of the Talmud we discover that the academy of Hillel advocated lighting the candles, as is customary today, in ascending order. In turn, the academy of Shamai offered an alternative interpretation, arguing that all eight Hanukkah candles should be lit on the first night, then seven candles on the second night, as we move in descending order to reduce the number of lights.

“The later sages in the Talmud asked the two academies for their rationale. The wise men in the academy of Shamai said that there should be eight candles and each succeeding night there should be one less candle. This, they reasoned, is similar to the bullocks that were brought to the Temple during the festival of Sukkoth. On Sukkoth, on the first day, thirteen bullocks were offered as sacrifices, on the second day twelve were offered and on the third day eleven and so forth for seven days. On each succeeding day the number of sacrifices decreased by one. The total for the seven days (13+12+11+10+9+8+7) equals seventy. The sages taught us that the significance of seventy sacrifices is that they were brought for the seventy nations (who spoke the seventy different languages that came into existence during the time of the Tower of Babel). The nations of today are an extension of these seventy nations, therefore the significance of the number seventy.”

Chanukah offers additional meaning. Namely, religious expression is an essential right of a free people. “Authenticity” reflects another central feature of this celebratory moment, stripping away idols and the rededication of the Temple reaffirms the oneness of God.

The Books of the Maccabees made no mention of the legend of the small jar of oil that would unexpectedly last eight days. Only centuries later would the Talmud reference the story of the oil. Under this scenario oil is seen as a symbol of “miracles,” where the rabbis emphasized that the community experiencing a period of great persecution required expressions of hope and belief if it was to survive and flourish. Mythology becomes a central feature in both religious and political systems.

The great treasure of Hanukkah is that one can find an array of interpretations and special meanings. For some Israelis, for example, the “miracle” is framed in military terms, depicting the few against the many, a scenario that affirms the State of Israel’s political reality. In Hasidic thought the world is seen as a battle between the Greek orientation of darkness and the Jewish perspective of celebrating light. The introduction of public Hanukkah candle lightings affirms Chabad’s idea of a “Festival of Lights.”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg concludes with this extraordinary observation: “The Jewish way calls on every human quality and every skill known to humanity. The past scenario of the Jewish people was represented by powerlessness and persecution. The present culture demands active responsibility… The battle of Hanukkah is being fought again, not in military engagements but through creating family ties, communicating values and messages, holding and deepening loyalties. It can only be won by partial solutions, visionary persistence, and realistic dreams. Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed the Jew that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night..”

As we once again celebrate this festival, we continue to uncover those lessons and insights that define the meaning of Hanukkah in our times:

  1. The celebration of religious liberty is the hallmark of this festival and a central feature of our political culture.
  2. Just as history has noted the leadership of Judah Maccabee, we continue to support those voices in our own time that defend the rights of our citizens and promote the principles of freedom.
  3. Hanukkah reminds us of the centrality of place in the Jewish narrative, affirming our historic political and religious connection to Jerusalem.
  4. Religious revolutions can take place in an atmosphere of dissent and discord as represented by the Maccabean revolt, but that is the price for religious freedom. We are reminded of the power of the people to define and shape their destiny.
  5. “The Festival of Lights” evokes the imperative of pursuing truth, exposing the light, while rejecting falsehoods and “the shedding of corrosive darkness of mistruths.”

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.