Why do we celebrate Hanukkah? Why is it not commemorated in the Bible or in the Mishnah? And what lessons does it have for our time?
Hanukkah commemorates the clash of Judaism with the dominant Hellenistic civilization of late antiquity. Not only did the Syrian king Antiochus seek to impose pagan worship on the Jews; there were also Jews who actively sought to blend entirely into that civilization. Males disguised their circumcision in order to compete naked in the gymnasium. The Temple was converted into a pagan temple and a pig was offered on the altar. There was the real danger that the practice of Judaism would come to an end.
The Maccabees led a successful revolt, drove out the Syrians, and rededicated the Temple. “Hanukkah” means “dedication” and its name derives from that event.
But the struggle did not end there. The descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, founded a dynasty. They sought to extend their political power by conquering the Galilee and forcibly converting its inhabitants to Judaism. They engaged in intrigues of personal power to gain the coveted offices of king and High Priest. After the Roman conquest, Herod similarly used his office to inflate his personal power, to build magnificent buildings in the Roman style, and to increase the wealth of a tiny elite at the expense of the people.
Rabbinic Judaism developed from the sect of the Pharisees, in protest against the emphasis on political and economic power that characterized the leadership of that period. The rabbis fostered the disciplines of prayer and study and the development of moral character. They pioneered the synagogue as a locus of spirituality and holiness that could exist wherever Jews lived.
The rabbis did not totally reject the example of the Greeks. They appreciated the intellectual and moral earnestness of the philosophical schools (especially the Platonists and Stoics) and emulated these in their own academy—the Beit Midrash—which made the intellectual and moral devotion to Torah the central focus. In doing so, they created the vehicles that would enable Judaism to survive for the next two millennia.
Because of their sharp differences with the direction that the later Hasmonean dynasty took, the rabbis were reluctant to play up Hanukkah, the festival that in their view celebrated the inauguration of that dynasty. They did not include the books of the Maccabees in the Jewish canon (they were preserved in Greek by the Church and are to be found in the Apocrypha). Similarly, they did not devote a tractate of the Mishnah to this holiday but mentioned it only in a short passage in the Talmud, where the military victory is not mentioned and the only focus is on the “miracle” of the cruse of oil that burned for eight days. For the Hanukkah Haftarah, they selected a passage in Zechariah that describes a vision of a candelabra and expresses the pacific sentiment, “Not by power and not by might, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4.6)
But the people’s devotion to the holiday of Hanukkah insured its preservation. The joyous display of lights (possibly borrowed from the torch display of Sukkot, a holiday from which Hanukkah also acquired its 8-day length and daily recitation of Hallel) captured the popular imagination, and an opportunity for light and festivity during the winter was too good to give up. The memory of the military victory was preserved in the liturgical addition Al Ha-nissim to the daily Amidah prayer and Birkat Hamazon. With the rise of Zionism in the modern age, this aspect of the holiday would receive new emphasis and would be commemorated in song and dramatic representations.
Today, Judaism again confronts the powerful civilizations of modernity. Will Judaism survive? And in what form, on what terms, with what values?
As in ancient times, we must be selective and filter the influences of our environment through the conscience of Jewish values. The Jewish focus on study has prepared us well to compete in a world where intellectual achievement is the necessary preparation for career advancement and material security. Modern civilization is based on scientific and technological prowess. But worship of human achievement may be our modern version of idolatry. Too often the means of material survival become tyrannical and crowd out the spiritual purpose of life.
Judaism has learned much from modern culture—from modern science, philosophy, art and literature—all of which have nourished the renaissance of Jewish life and learning in the past two centuries. But a disproportionate part of Jewish talent has been given over to the service of world culture. We must cultivate our own garden, strengthen our own identity from the sources of our tradition, and hold our heads up high as Jews.
The Jewish people has gained independence on its land, establishing a third Jewish commonwealth. But we must take care here, too, that we do not wield power just for power’s sake, but for the sake of justice and the achievement of peace and fulfillment for all God’s children.
We celebrate two legacies in this festival—the Maccabees whose courage preserved the physical continuity of the Jewish people, and the Pharisees and rabbis whose teaching insured the faithfulness of the Jewish soul to the ideals of its destiny. In a world full of enticing distractions, let us again muster the courage to rededicate that inner sanctuary where we can cuiltivate God’s spirit.