Hanukah and Thanksgiving occur simultaneously this year, which puts a twist on an idea that people have in their minds that certain Jewish holidays are the "equivalent" of certain Christian holidays, even where there is no theological connection whatsoever. Hanukah and Christmas, for example, often get paired, even though they are not religiously linked together. This year, with Hanukah/Thanksgiving, Thanksgivingakah, it's an opportunity to think about how Hanukah and Thanksgiving relate to one another.
1. Hanukah is probably based on the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. According to the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 10:1-8) Hanukah served almost as a redo for Sukkot. When the Hasmoneans (the ruling dynasty over Judea 140 BCE-37 BCE) were not able to celebrate Sukkot during the war to take back Judea from the Greeks, when they won, they made up for their missed Sukkot with Hanukah.
Sukkot might also be the basis for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israelites escaping religious persecution in England, their "Egypt," and creating a new home for themselves in America, their "Israel." When they achieved a successful harvest, they wanted to celebrate with a harvest festival. Perhaps they looked at their Bibles (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) and learned that Sukkot is a harvest festival. (Dr. Lillian Sigal in "Thanksgiving: Sacred or Profane Feast?" Mythosphere 1.4 1999: 454-455.)
2. The story we tell is different from the story that happened. The Hanukah story we tell is that the Maccabees, the founders of the Hasmonean Dynasty, fought the Greeks for religious freedom. The Maccabees wanted religious freedom; however, they also wished to impose their religious beliefs on others. The story of Hanukah is the story of a civil war in Judea, between those who wished to be acculturated into Greek society and those who had no tolerance for engaging in any aspect of Greek culture (I Maccabees 1:43-2:28 and 2:40-48).
We do the same thing with Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving story is that the Pilgrims left England for religious freedom. Yes they wanted freedom of religion for themselves but they tried to impose a theocracy in America (Dr. Nick Rutt "How the Religious Right Views History -- And Why" Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 72.2/3 1989:528).
3. The Talmud (a book of Jewish law and lore) Shabbat 21B opens its narrative of Hanukah in a bizarre manner. It uses the phrase "What's Hanukah?" Obviously, they knew what Hanukah was. By opening their discussion with this question, it seems that they are making an editorial comment. They are posing: "Is Hanukah truly a religious holiday? They were, perhaps, revealing their ambivalence about the holiday. They might have been troubled by the idea of extolling or emphasizing war. As Rabbis seeking a religious experience, they may have found it challenging to connect to such a holiday. Furthermore, perhaps they felt, as a minority living in exile, that they did not want to promulgate a story about rebelling against a foreign government.
I am sure many Jews when they first came to America asked the same question about Thanksgiving. What's Thanksgiving? This is interesting because Judaism and Thanksgiving blended with each other from their first encounter. Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, was the first synagogue established in America, in 1654. The synagogue wanted to bring together their experience of being Jewish and American. When President George Washington called for an official day of thanksgiving in 1789, according to the synagogue's web site, they decided to apply Jewish liturgy to Thanksgiving. They selected various sections from Hallel, a prayer recited on certain Jewish holidays, including Hanukah. Similarly, many synagogues from different approaches to Judaism have developed Thanksgiving services over the years. Sometimes synagogues of different movements come together for joint Thanksgiving services, or even Ecumenical services, where Jews partner with other religions to create a service that is respectful of all, regardless of affiliation; these types of services have added a universal dimension to Thanksgiving.
This year, let's celebrate Hanukah and Thanksgiving with a mindfulness as to how these holidays join us, and how - perhaps, not surprisingly -- the common denominator is bountiful food and family around the table, to mark our gratitude and deep sense of blessing -- for freedom, prosperity and community. Happy Hanukah, Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Thanksgivingakah.