Monday, December 8, 2014

Chanukah Reimagined

The most famous symbol of Chanukah is the Chanukiah. That is the 8 branched menorah, which we light one additional light for each night of the festival. The reason for this can be found in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat where it reminds us that after the Hasmoneans drove the Selucid Greeks and their leader Antiochus IV out of the Temple in Jerusalem, they only found one container of oil that had been sealed by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. This The used the oil to rededicate (Chanukah) the Temple, and great miracle was that this oil lasted not for one day, but for eight days.

This is the reason we tell our children that we light candles for eight nights. The problem with this narrative is that the great miracle was not the oil. The great miracle was a group of desperate and heavily oppressed Jews managed to overcome a far superior force in a central battle for religious freedom. With the way things were going, if the Hasmoneans, as led by Judah Maccabee had not defeated the Selucid Greeks, there would probably be no Judaism today.

We even reference this during our worship services during Chanukah with a section called Al HaNisim, “We thank you for the miracles.” In it we are reminded that Mattathias ben Yohanan, the High Priest, and his children rose up against the evil Government of Greece. And that God, “delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…”

In many ways, it is the same narrative we use when referencing Israel’s battle for Independence.
But why don’t we emphasize this story rather than the story of the oil? Part of the reason was because the Hasmoneans fell out of favor once they conquered the Greeks and began to abuse their authority. In a way, the rabbis wrote them out of history, or at least de-emphasized their role in the narrative.
Another reason is because, for the longest time, talk of Jews as powerful military figures overcoming oppressive forces would not play well in intolerant countries. However, as we now live freely and openly as Jews alongside with a Jewish State, now is a great time to begin to reclaim this heritage.

So as you light your candles and eat your latkes and sufganiyot, sing not just the songs of the menorah, but also the songs celebrating our ability to fight for our right to be able to do such things as light the menorah and eat latkes and sufganiyot. Chag Chanukah Sameach!

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