Category Archives: Chanukah

The Original Spin on Chanukah

Tis the season to be Jewish; menorahs and latkes abound, and oil (for each, unfortunately) will soon flow like water in countless Jewish homes.  Chanukah, thank G-d, is once again upon us.

It has become fashionable to attribute the popularity of the Jewish festival of lights — second among American Jews only to Passover — to the fact that the winter Jewish holiday tends to roughly coincide with a major Western Christian celebration.  But to see Chanukah as nothing more than a foil to another faith’s observance is to miss the Jewish festival’s conceptual essence.  Chanukah may well resonate with contemporary Jews for a deeper reason —  because it speaks, perhaps more than any other Jewish calendar-milestone, directly and powerfully to us.

Chanukah has been appropriated by a host of Jewish leaders and pundits for their own, often partisan, purposes.  Last Chanukah, for instance, a New York news radio station repeatedly featured a Reform rabbi’s remarkable declaration that since Chanukah commemorates a victory over an oppressive regime bent on undermining the Jewish religious tradition, the holiday should be regarded as a celebration of religious pluralism.  Several years earlier, a widely-published columnist (Orthodox, as it happens) suggested that the festival of lights is an affirmation of the need for tolerance.

Chanukah, however, isn’t celebratory Silly-Putty. It has a long, deep and clear tradition in classical Jewish texts, from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters.  And, on its most basic level, it addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance, admirable though those concepts may be in their proper place, but Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by the contemporary Jewish world.

For the rededication of the Temple from which the holiday takes its name (Chanukah means “dedication”) and the military victory over the Seleucids that preceded it were unmistakable expressions of resistance to assimilation.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not the Seleucid empire as an occupation force, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior”, “sophisticated”, wholly secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph over assimilation.  The Maccabees succeeded, in other words, in preserving Jewish tradition, in drawing lines.

And so the miracle of the lights, our tradition teaches, was hardly arbitrary.  Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil.  For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah, the teachings and laws that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.

Even the custom of playing dreidel, sources explain, is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity.  The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty.  They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they rightfully regarded as the engine of Jewish identity and continuity.   The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah in pairs or groups; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

Is it mere chance, too, that Chanukah seems so intriguing to contemporary Jews, so very many of whom are threatened with assimilation, not coercive, to be sure, but no less threatening to Jewish survival?  Or might that coincidence be laden with meaning?

Meaning, and a message: Jews can resist the temptation to melt into the surrounding culture.  They have the ability to put away the dreidels, take out the books and make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about their lives.

May all we Jews have a happy, and meaningful, Chanukah.

© 2002 Forward

 

 

 

 

 

Candles in the Wind

There’s considerable cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major Christian celebration (though this year they are several weeks apart).

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed as a celebration of religious freedom (or even, weirdly, as a salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the Festival of Lights is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Talmud through the Lurianic mystical works to those of the Chassidic masters.  Chanukah is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabees was not so much the Seleucid empire as a military power, but rather what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of the Jewish religious tradition, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that Judaism considers immoral. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” secular philosophy. And thus the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation.  The Maccabees succeeded in preserving Jewish tradition, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when assimilation and intermarriage are rampant, Chanukah should resonate even more meaningfully to us American Jews.

Release of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000’s data on Jewish affiliation and intermarriage has been delayed for now, but it is hard to imagine that when it comes it will bring good news.  Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating converts – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish children.  But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.”  And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.  Even leaving aside its inherent Jewish wrongness, consider what Brandeis University researcher Sylvia Barack Fishman discovered: fully half the intermarried couples raising their children as Jews hold Christmas and Easter celebrations in their homes.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by others who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs.  Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be slowly happening on its own.  Crazily, where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

The “miracle of the lights,” our tradition teaches, was not an arbitrary sign.  Poignant meaning lay in the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil.  For light, in Jewish tradition, means Torah – the principles, laws and teachings that comprise the Jewish religious heritage.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of the secret of Jewish continuity.  The Seleucids had forbidden a number of expressions of Jewish devotion, like the practice of circumcision and the Jewish insistence on personal modesty.  They also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity.   The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidles and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling the Temple menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of the Jewish faith over the past 3000 years.  All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment.  “Chanukah” means “dedication.”  It is a time for all of us Jews to rededicate ourselves to our heritage.

We have the power to keep ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and to resist the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way.  We know how to put down the dreidels and open the books.  We can make serious, deeply Jewish, decisions about our lives.

And with our will, our study and our observance, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

We can all have not only a happy Chanukah, but, more importantly, a meaningful one.

© 2002 Rabbi Avi Shafran