c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The basic messages of religious holidays always remain the same, but the humans who celebrate those holidays are constantly changing. As a result, each year we bring something different to our holy days.
How we observe those special days provides insight about us as individuals as well as offering a snapshot of our changing society. This is especially true with Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights that begins at sundown on Dec. 21.
Unlike many other religious holidays, Hanukkah is based on historic events that can be precisely dated. During the second century BC, Jews living in the land of Israel chafed under the brutal heel of a superpower of that time: the vast Greco-Syrian empire ruled by Emperor Antiochus IV.
In his imperial hubris, Antiochus attempted to destroy religious differences within his realm. Judaism in general, and religiously faithful Jews in particular, were his special targets.
The emperor’s forces captured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and erected a statue of Zeus; Jews who abhorred idolatry were commanded to worship Zeus instead of the God of Israel. Royal decrees banned ritual circumcision, the teaching of the Torah, Jewish dietary laws and many other aspects of Jewish life. The punishment for disobeying Antiochus frequently included capital punishment.
Many Jews believed that to get along one had to go along and they publicly submitted to Antiochus’ draconian measures. Both the emperor’s actions and the supine capitulation of some Jews enraged a priestly family. One member of that family, the militarily gifted and charismatic Judah Maccabee, attracted a band of rebels. Judah and his followers, the Maccabees, carried out a successful three-year armed struggle and eventually recaptured Jerusalem and its Holy Temple in 164 BC.
The Maccabees restored _ Hanukkah means “dedication” _ that sacred edifice to the service of God. Ever since, the Jewish people have commemorated the Maccabees’ military and spiritual victory as a “miracle” and a fight for religious freedom. In homes and synagogues, special prayers of thanksgiving are offered for eight days, candles are lit in a menorah and gifts are exchanged.
However, the ancient rabbis discouraged the celebration of Hanukkah because the holiday’s primary focus was military rather than spiritual. But for many centuries, Jews lived under oppressive Christian and Islamic regimes and were politically and militarily powerless. Because their bleak lives were filled with persecution, the Jewish “common folk” joyously celebrated the Maccabees’ great triumph of the “few over the many.”
When Israel achieved independence in 1948, Hanukkah emerged out of the home and synagogue and became a national holiday in the Jewish state. Modern Israelis were likened to the ancient Maccabees, and the Holy Temple’s menorah became the official symbol of the state.
In recent years, some Jewish parents, living in an affluent United States, feared that their children would be overwhelmed by the pervasive glitter of Christmas, another December festival of light. They pumped up Hanukkah into eight days of escalating gift giving that minimized the central theme of the holiday: the fight for religious freedom. Anxious parents blew up Hanukkah into something it was never meant to be.
Fortunately, that ill-conceived era of making Hanukkah into a “Jewish Christmas” has ended. In today’s America, many religious, racial and ethnic groups proudly and authentically celebrate a host of festivals throughout the year. Hopefully, the earlier sense of holiday competition is over. No one holiday is more precious than any other.
This year, Hanukkah will be observed against the grim backdrop of an economic crisis replete with massive job losses, financial setbacks and government bailouts. For most Americans, lavish gifts are out along with expensive holiday parties. Maybe, just maybe, the Jewish community will return to the basics: light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, and spiritual freedom in the face of religious persecution, bigotry, and prejudice.
It’s not a bad message for an ancient holiday.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
DEA KRE END RUDIN