(RNS) — Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday evening (Dec. 12) has been incorrectly called the “Jewish Christmas” because both holidays emphasize light and take place during the darkest days of winter.
While the two festivals are very different in message and observance, there are, however, some significant links between Hanukkah and Christmas. The New Testament records that Jesus, like other Jews of his time, celebrated the eight days of Hanukkah: “It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” (John 10:22-23) The Hebrew word "Hanukkah" means “Dedication.”
If Charles Dickens had written about Hanukkah in a manner similar to his “A Christmas Carol,” the famous English author would have noted that special prayers are recited in Jewish homes each night of the holiday as young (and not so young) children light colorful candles in a candelabrum or menorah. Dickens would surely describe in loving detail the unmistakable aroma and taste of the two traditional holiday treats: potato pancakes fried in oil and loaded with calories and cholesterol along with small jelly doughnuts that rapidly raise a person’s blood sugar level. Gifts are exchanged among family members and friends and a series of well-known songs are sung that are especially beloved by adults — including me — because they evoke warm joyous childhood memories of Hanukkahs long past.
That’s how the holiday is celebrated today.
But the warm and fuzzy aspects of the festival frequently obscure the darker historical side of Hanukkah. The holiday commemorates the military struggle in the land of Israel between 168-165 B.C. when Judah Maccabee’s small number of Jewish guerrillas defeated the much larger and better-armed Greco-Syrian army of Emperor Antiochus IV, a brutal ruler who reigned over part of Alexander the Great’s former empire.
Antiochus was no champion of religious liberty and diversity. In his zeal for total control of his vast realm, he prohibited the study of Torah, ritual circumcision, kosher dietary laws, Sabbath observance and the practice of Judaism itself. An ancient historian detailed Antiochus’ cruelty:
“The Books of the Torah which the men of Antiochus found, they tore into pieces and burned. Wherever a book of the covenant was found in anyone's possession, or if anyone respected the Torah, the decree of the king imposed the sentence of death upon him. Month after month, they dealt brutally with every Jew who was found in the cities…In accordance with the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging the newborn babies around their necks; and they also put to death their families as well as those who had circumcised them.”
When Judah’s forces recaptured Jerusalem, they demolished the statues of Zeus and other idolatrous symbols Antiochus had placed inside the Holy Temple, and rededicated the Temple to the service of God. Judah’s victory of “the few over the many” has earned him his own statue at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he stands alongside other great military leaders.
Jewish tradition teaches that the small quantity of olive oil that Judah found was insufficient to fuel the Temple’s eternal light beyond one day, but somehow the precious oil lasted eight days; an event described as the “miracle” of Hanukkah.
Many historians agree that Hanukkah represents an early struggle for what we today call “religious liberty“ or “freedom of conscience.” The holiday is an annual reminder that every faith community has the right to maintain its diverse customs, ceremonies, and teachings, and no ruler, government, or regime has the right to dictate what people can and cannot believe.
Hanukkah’s message remains as relevant as it was more than 2,100 years ago. Today there are forced religious conversions involving kidnapped young children, beheadings based upon one’s religious identity and numerous bloody “religious wars” raging in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.
Finally, without the Maccabees’ victory and the preservation of Jewish religious life in ancient Israel, Christianity may not have emerged 200 years later with its taproots deeply embedded within Judaism. The only Scripture Jesus knew was, of course, the Torah the malevolent Antiochus wanted to obliterate. The Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem mentioned in the New Testament was saved from desecration and rededicated to God 150 years before Jesus was born.
As Jews and Christians celebrate our distinctive festivals of faith and light, it is “altogether fitting and proper” that both communities remember Judah Maccabee’s long ago victory over the forces of darkness, despotism and death.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. This piece previously appeared in TheBostonPilot.com in 2014. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)