Saturday, December 4, 2010

Which Chanukah are YOU Celebrating - Part Two

Over the years, I've come to realize that Chanukah, like most Jewish holidays and observances, is viewed through many lenses. Sometimes it depends on time, sometimes on place, sometimes on context, sometimes on an individual's frame of mind. But from celebrations to articles, to speeches about the holiday, it is clear that Chanukah is a prism through which the lights of the holiday shine and reflect light to a lot of different places.

These are the Chanukah holidays that some to my mind:

Chanukah as recognition of God's hand in the world - Simply stated, this Chanukah recognizes miracles in the world. There are events that cannot be explained away simply. We all have examples, although we may or may not choose to see them as Godly. Nonetheless, this particular Chanukah sees God's hand in the victory of the ancient Maccabees and in the burning of a container's worth of oil for eight days.

Chanukah as celebration of religious freedom - We look at Antiochus IV's attempts to outlaw significant Jewish practices. The victory of the Maccabean army reestablished the right of traditional Jewry to their practice, including the rituals of the Temple. It ignores the question of whether the Hellenized Jews or other groups walked away with religious freedom. Because mostly, we don't know. Still, there is something to be said for this version of the holiday and it plays well in public forums, such as interfaith gatherings and public schools.

Chanukah as freedom from oppression - This Chanukah recognizes that the Maccabees broke free of foreign rule and asserted the right to self-governance. It is an inspiration to all who stand for the right of a people to choose their own destiny.

Chanukah as Jewish strength - After 2,000 years of Jewish political and military powerlessness, Chanukah served as the beginning of the last chapter of Jewish might and of Jewish self-governance. Particularly in the Zionist movements, the Maccabees became the most recent example of a successful Jewish army. It was an important reminder that Jews weren't always lawyers, doctors, and accountants. They were also generals, kings and a Hasmonean queen, Salome Alexandra (ShalomTzion Ha-malka).

Chanukah as light dispelling darkness - Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastianism, Hinduism, Druid and many other cultures have holidays around now -- the winter solstice. At the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, lights were lit to illuminate the darkness. Symbolically, this Chanukah holiday reminds us of hope even in the darkest times.

There are probably many more Chanukahs, all of them interwoven into one eight day celebration. What Chanukah do YOU celebrate?

Chag Ha-Urim Sameach, a Happy Chanukah to you and yours.

Friday, December 3, 2010

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...