Shortly after you receive this issue of the TBI monthly bulletin, Chanukah will be upon us. Known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah seems to have originated from more than one source. One pre-Jewish source is the seemingly almost-universal custom of having some sort of formalized ritual at the time of the winter solstice that includes fire or other light, a means of convincing the “powers” to end the darkness and bring back the warmth and light of Spring, and the rebirth of the earth.
The Jewish gloss on this more-primordial foundation is the Chanukah story itself, based in historical truth, but embellished with elements that neither can nor should be considered historical. While it is true that the Jews of the time were under tremendous pressure from the Syrian Greeks to assimilate, and while it is true that there was a very understandable effort on the part of the “traditional” Jewish community to retain its unique Jewishness, and while it is true that those efforts were spearheaded by the Hasmoneans, what is not so certain is that when the Hasmoneans regained control of the Temple precincts, the “miracle” of the sacred oil lasting for eight days actually happened.
All of this happened just a little more than two thousand years ago, at a time when elements of history were being written down and passed down in a more reliable manner than they had been previously. The story of Chanukah appears in books that didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible, but were included in a collection of books called the Apocrypha.
While we know that the story of the Hasmoneans and the Maccabees is based on fact, and while we know that the minor holiday of Chanukah is based on that history, what seems to get lost in our time are two different, but related, things:
First, the story of the Maccabees is a story of resistance against those who would have denied us the right to practice our own religion in our own way and would have imposed their religion and lifestyle on us whether or not we were willing; and second, regardless of whether we accept the reality of the “miracles” in this story, the celebration of Chanukah in our day has evolved from being a story of resistance and revolt, and a struggle for freedom of religious expression, to one of commercializing a religiously-inspirational historical story to the point of its being a Jewish version of the secular aspects of Christmas.
In our day and time I find the commercialization of all religious holidays to be in the poorest of taste, whether it be the winter holidays of Chanukah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or the onslaught of gift catalogues from every retailer on earth trying to ensure that we spend what little money we may still have, while we struggle to pay for our more important necessities like food, clothing, and shelter.
There are yet valuable messages that religions bring to us at this season:
For the Jews, the story of Chanukah - at least to me - reminds me that what Judaism stands for is still worth fighting for, that Jewish values are eternal values on the basis of which civilization could remain civilized, and that at the end of the long darkness we yet hope to find the light.
For Christians, the story of Christmas is one of joy and hope as well. It is a story of birth which, taken in its broadest meaning, can be understood to express the belief that as long as there is life, there can be hope as well.
And Kwanzaa, a beautiful African-American holiday, exists to tell people that even from the lowest depths of darkness and degradation can come resistance and rebirth into a brighter future.
With the winter solstice just ahead of us, the darkest time of the year, I look forward to our being bearers of light to those who experience only darkness, and rays of hope for those who don’t seem to have any hope of their own. At a time in history when so many see only despair and darkness, we Jews – who have seen so much darkness and suffering throughout our own history – are in a better position than most to bring the message that there can be light at the end of the tunnel, rebirth at the end of a long, dark winter, and hope for those in despair, if we all pull together to fight for what is right and just and fair for all.
Rabbi Jeffrey R. Astrachan