Humanistic Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a slightly challenging holiday for Humanistic Jews.

The “official story” of the holiday goes something like this: the Maccabees fought against the evil Seleucid Empire, who wanted to kill or convert all the Jews. The Maccabees prevailed and, following their victory, they held a ceremony to re-dedicate the Temple to Yahweh, the Hebrew God. There was only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one night, and it would take eight days to make more. By a miracle, the oil that should have only enough to last for one night, lasted eight.

I always wondered why, if they knew it would take eight days to make more oil, they didn’t just wait seven days before they lit it to begin with. But it turns out that whole part of the story is made up, anyway. It was a myth created by the rabbis who wrote the Talmud, who wanted to take the focus off the Maccabees and place it on God.

The part about the Maccabees, though, is at least in some respects, true, though it’s a bit more complicated than most people realize. As this recent article in the Forward reminds us, at least some of the people the Maccabees were fighting against were actually other Jews:

“The Maccabean revolt, according to this interpretation, was not a revolt but a civil war between cosmopolitan Jews who wanted to assimilate to Greek culture and religious zealots who wanted to defend the original tradition…”

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick also writes very compellingly about this in his piece “Chanukah: When Truth Collides with Memory”:

“I find it impossible to admire the Maccabees. In fact, my sympathies tend to lie with the Hellenizing Jews. They at least sought avenues toward tolerance and integration with the larger world culture. But even those sympathies are probably misplaced. From everything I’ve learned about them, they were also elitist jerks.”

Yet Hanukkah remains one of the most popular Jewish holidays (at least in America). To sit this one out, seems crazy.

We may want to look for inspiration elsewhere. In Judaism Beyond God, Sherwin Wine, founding rabbi of Secular Humanistic Judaism, writes about the ancient pagan origins of the holiday that would become the Jewish Festival of Lights:

“Hanukka started out with another name. Before the Maccabean triumph it was called Nayrot (Lights). It was the winter festival that celebrated the rebirth of light. At the winter solstice, darkness ceases to expand, and the day begins to grow longer. Since darkness is death and light is life, the reversal is a dramatic moment in the year.

“…Fires were lit on each of the eight days to imitate the change and to encourage nature, by suggestion, to continue its good work. Ultimately, the fires were confined in each household to a board of eight lights. The eight days and the lights were part of Jewish life long before the legend of the holy oil made its appearance.”

Light, darkness, winter, cold, fire, warmth–all of these are also themes of the holiday and all have been a part of the human story for a long time. And there may some things we can find to admire about the Maccabees–like the fact that they were willing to fight on the Sabbath after their initial defeats.

And, of course, there is the food. And the music.

Lastly, even if we find it difficult to sympathize completely with either side (the Maccabees or the Hellenistic Jews), we can recognize in this ancient story a conflict that continues to this day–a struggle within the Jewish community between cosmopolitanism and secularity on one hand versus parochialism and religiosity on the other. It’s a struggle that has become largely peaceful, but no less real with the passage of 2,000 years. And that struggle will probably always be a part of the Jewish experience.

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