The Full Story of Chanukah Has Much to Say to Us Today

Dec 20, 2019 by

The Full Story of Chanukah Has Much to Say to Us Today

In the fall of 1976, a young Jew stood at the crossroads. Recently confirmed, just back from a summer in Israel, a veteran of our URJ camps, and now a religious school intern — for the first time honestly confronting the story he, and countless generations of Jews, had learned about Chanukah. The one where a religious zealot named Judah Maccabee, with the help of a ragtag bunch of pious Jews, defeated the army of the evil King Antiochus. And when they rededicated the Temple, the story of the miraculous oil that burned for eight days.

That kid was me, and it seemed like we had learned that Chanukah was a celebration of militant Jewish zealotry. In 1976, the only contemporary Jew who fit that description was Meir Kahane of the JDL, a Jew I wanted nothing to do with. So why should I celebrate this holiday if he was the modern embodiment of Judah Maccabee? And, worse, if that is what Judaism values, why should I want to be Jewish?

Fortunately, I found myself at a teachers’ workshop, taught by Rabbi Manny Gold, where, for the first time, I learned of the Books of the Maccabees and the Apocrypha, and an entirely different tradition for why we celebrate Chanukah — one that made more sense to me and might just have saved me for Judaism. So, when I got to rabbinic school, I was open to harmonizing the two versions under the tutelage of Rabbi Martin Cohen, and found an even deeper story.

A story that starts with Jews divided over the best way to approach our Jewishness — either exclusively according to our traditions, or as part of seeking to participate in the larger (Greek) society. A division of the community in and around Jerusalem severe enough to cause King Antiochus to declare martial law in Judea to calm things down. Martial law, in this case, meant suspending the “constitution” (i.e., Torah) and sending in the troops to enforce the ban, garrisoning them in the most secure location in Jerusalem — the Temple complex.

This becomes the background against which Judah enters the story, not as a religious zealot, but as a compromise leader that the previously feuding Jewish factions all could rally behind to fight the common enemy. Among Judah’s first actions as leader was to allow his forces to take up arms on Shabbat — hardly the act of a religious zealot, but smart strategy, which eventually also allowed them to attack the enemy on Shabbat, to gain the element of surprise.

Using these tactics, Judah was able to hold the Syrian-Greek army at bay for three years, by which time there was enough going on elsewhere in Antiochus’s kingdom to convince him to pull his troops from Jerusalem. In the Maccabees version of the story, this led to cleaning the Temple from the Greek soldiers’ use, and an eight-day rededicatory celebration based either on Sukkot, or Solomon’s dedication festival after building the original Temple.

If things ended here, we would have a story that speaks to the tension between traditionalism and assimilation, and, as we will see, teaches us important values still today. But the story doesn’t end there, and over the next 700 years takes a series of twists and turns — all of which end up reinforcing these same values. The feuding picks up and is eventually ended by Judah’s last brother Simon, who inaugurates the Hasmonean Dynasty, which loses its control when the group that will become the Pharisees, and then the rabbis removes its support, leading to the Roman takeover that eventually leads to the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Once in power, the rabbis try to make Chanukah go away, but cannot, and so add the oil story to recast it within parameters that they can live with. (Yes, that summary was rushed, for space reasons, but these events are each well worth studying and understanding on their own!).

For the next 1000 years, the oil story becomes the only story Jews learn within our isolated communities — so even though it is added late with deliberate purpose, it is important to see that without it, there is no guarantee that the holiday survives on its own into the modern world, given the rabbis’ earlier efforts to make it disappear. It is only when Judaism emerges from isolation into the world of the Enlightenment and America that we Jews finally have access to both versions of the history.

So, at roughly the same time we American Jews were elevating the significance of Chanukah, mostly in response to the commercialization of Christmas around us, we also were given the texts, the opportunity, and the responsibility to change our understanding of the Chanukah story, bringing both versions together. Doing so replaces the miracle story with one that, with multiple examples over time, emphasizes for us the importance of rededicating ourselves to being serious Jews, participating more fully in the life of the Jewish community and its institutions, adapting our Jewish practice to allow us to navigate successfully between the polar pulls of strict traditionalism and full assimilation, and live lives of positive Jewish value.

And THAT is a story that has much to teach us about our Jewish life today.

Rabbi Steve Weisman is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD and a long-time teacher of the Chanukah story to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

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