December 10, 2020
24 Kislev 5781
Chanukah is here! The great miracle of the oil! The crushing victory of the Maccabees! The reality of the original Chanukah story played out much like the lead-up to our recent election, only then it was a fight for the soul of Judaism, or at least it felt that way. Some Jews living under Greek rule (165 BCE) loved the Greek traditions and wanted to embrace them. Some felt that if Jews embraced any of them, it would lead to the end of Judaism.The stakes felt that high, and eventually it was the Jews who engaged in their own civil war over the future of Judaism; Did Jews have to refrain from all Greek customs? Would it hurt to wear a toga? How about to taste tzatziki? What about tzatziki with delicious gyros, mixing milk and meat? Could we pray our prayers using Greek melodies? How about in Greek? What if we liked a Greek prayer enough to incorporate it into our liturgy? How far could we push the boundaries of Judaism before we broke Judaism itself? We can imagine that if the Chanukah story happened today, there would be a lot of Facebook “unfriending.”
Instead, we talk to children of heroism, as if the danger is and always was, the other guys; the Greeks, and how we triumphed over them, making ourselves bigger and stronger in our minds. And yet, what if the origin of giving presents is precisely about assimilation in the US, and Jewish parents, in the early 20th century, with their children in public schools for the first time ever, did not want their children to run off to Christianity because the Christian children received presents at this time of year? Can assimilation be good for self-preservation? Just a little bit? How much?
The tradition of giving presents actually has nothing to do with the original Chanukah story, or even with most Jewish communities outside of the United States.In fact, it just might be an anathema to the themes of Chanukah, which was really the fight about assimilation. Perhaps the political landscape in the US is closer to the real Chanukah story than any other situation we have experienced in generations. Neighbors and colleagues pitted against each other regarding politics, feeling like there is one right direction (their own) and that the other “side” will lead us into tyranny (and worse!). Now that’s a Chanukah story right there, not just “bayamin ha-hem” (in days of old) but “baz’man ha-zeh” (in our day, too).
A teacher recently inquired if they could read a story to the class about a Jewish boy being invited to a Christmas party with a neighbor. The story beautifully illustrates several dilemmas for Jews; if we go to a neighbor’s Christmas party are we forsaking Judaism? If we go, and we help decorate the tree, are we contributing “hiddur mitzvah” (beautifying a mitzvah) to our neighbors (or family members) or are we going against the core of Judaism? How high do our fences need to be to protect ourselves from assimilation or from Christianity? It would be easier to not enter into this conversation, since families have a wide array of approaches to the book’s scenarios, and we respond to these situations personally. And yet, our Torah teaches over and over to love our neighbors as ourselves. To treat the ger (gentile) among us with love and respect and inclusion. Many Jewish families include relatives who are Christian, or Native American, or Hindu, or Buddist, etc. Maybe this is the perfect book to discuss at Chanukah time - how inclusive are we? How much is enough? How much is too much?
The Chanukah story continues to play out in the US, and it remains to be seen how we forge a path towards repairing our communities while staying true to our ideals.
Wishing you a Chanukah Sameach, a Chanukah of light that will fill the darkness we experience, a Chanukah that will lead us to our best selves and our brightest lights, and a Chanukah of good health.
Chanukah Ritual Resource
For those of us who need guidance on the words and customs of lighting the Chanukiya, which is the Hebrew name for the menorah we light on Chanukah. The word “menorah” means lamp, and comes from the ancient Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple, which was lit by a seven-candle lamp (menorah). Click here to access the words and recordings of the Chanukah Rituals.