The Truth(s) About Hanukkah

The truth about the Maccabees is a slippery one. National liberators or religious fanatics? Freedom fighters or terrorists? The truth depends on who's telling their story, and for what purpose.
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I was asked to give a history lecture as part of our JCC's Hanukkah fair, so I thought I'd title it something provocative like "The Real Story of Hanukkah." But it turned out that was already the title of an ongoing JCC lecture series, so, without much thought, I agreed to "The Truth About Hanukkah" instead.

When I sat down to actually think about the lecture I would give, I realized a problem. "Truth" is a word I encourage my students to avoid, both in the study of history and in the study of religion.

We are all familiar with the idea that history is written by the victors, so I always try to impress on my students that while we can reconstruct a version of what might have happened, history is not a science that can be reproduced in a lab. The facts of what happened then -- whether "then" is 3,000 years ago, 300, three years or three minutes -- vary depending on who you ask, what they saw, and how they interpreted what they saw.

And when it comes to religion, everyone has a different truth -- not only differing from Protestant to Jew to Muslim to Catholic to Hindu, but even within each group, from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to Reconstructionist; and further from individual man, to individual woman, to individual child.

When I was a child, my truth about Hanukkah was that, as the only Jewish kid in my class, Hanukkah meant that my mom would bake shortbread cookies in shapes of menorahs and dreidels and put colored sprinkles on them and bring them to school for my classmates while she explained the story of the Maccabees and handed out dreidels and chocolate gelt.

My truth about Hanukkah was more of a fervent attempt to believe that Hanukkah was better than Christmas -- after all, it was longer and we got more presents, and besides, I didn't really feel left out when the school choir sang carols and re-enacted the nativity on stage and the neighbors had such pretty lights on their houses and my friends debated the existence of Santa Claus.

In Hebrew School we learned the story of the Maccabees, men who fought for their right to remain Jewish in the Hellenistic world of the Seleucid Empire when King Antiochus tried to ban Judaism. The brave Maccabees, outnumbered and out-armed, with God on their side, miraculously defeated their oppressors and won religious freedom and sovereignty for the Jews. The truth about Hanukkah historically, as I learned it then, paralleled my truth in my own gentile world: there was a dominant culture that imposed itself on everything Jewish, advertising itself everywhere and tempting the Jews to take part in it, just a little -- have a Hanukkah bush, sit on Santa's lap in the mall, watch the Rudolph special on TV just one more time and pretend for just a second how exciting it would be if he were to land on your roof tonight -- and the good Jews, the strong Jews, fought it, eradicated it and re-established their proper ways. And God approved, bringing a miracle that meant that Jews forever after could celebrate their holiday for eight days instead of just the 25th of December.

But the truth about Hanukkah seemed to change for me as I got older. In my teens, I started to take pride in being different; in being the one who didn't succumb to the same celebrations and commercialization of religion that the masses did at Christmastime. I was above all that gaudy festivity and marketing opportunism. And later, as an even more cynical undergraduate, I learned in my world religions class that many religions have a celebration around the end of December; and thus the true origin of both Hanukkah and Christmas was some older, pagan, winter solstice ritual. That was a truth I was quite comfortable with. And in the meantime, the story of the Maccabees, the fight of the few marginalized by cultural and religious differences against the unwelcome impositions of a dominant state religion and culture, still resonated just as strongly with my own personal struggles to define my identity in a non-Jewish world.

Then I went to graduate school, and the truth about Hanukkah changed again.

The books of the Maccabees are not part of the Hebrew Bible, so I had never read them growing up -- and I suspect, neither had most of my Hebrew school teachers who taught me the Hanukkah story in the first place. But then, in a graduate program in ancient Mediterranean history and religions, we read the Christian Bible. And there they were: four books called Maccabees. These apocryphal or deuterocanonical books were written by and about Jews in the time before Christianity was established as a separate religion, but they were not included in the Jewish canon. We read the story of Hanukkah in 1 and 2 Maccabees (in Greek). And it was a bit different than the story of Hanukkah I had learned before.

1 and 2 Maccabees have different authors, and they each portray the events of the Maccabean revolt from different perspectives -- they each have a slightly different "truth." The author of 1 Maccabees portrayed the Maccabean revolt as a rising of pious Jews against the annihilation of their religion by the oppressive, Hellenizing Seleucid king and the Jews who supported him. The author of 2 Maccabees depicted instead a brutal civil war, an internal struggle within the Jewish community between "Judaism" and "Hellenism" -- words that he in fact coined. There were Jews who wanted to assimilate, and the Maccabees put an end to that by massacring them and forcibly circumcising their sons.

So the truth about the Maccabees was a bit different than what I had thought. I had been sympathizing, and gaining a sense of my own Jewish identity, from the idea of brave men who had taken it upon themselves to fight the power and rise up against oppression and religious intolerance. I had admired the courage of Mattathias in refusing to act against his own religious beliefs, and being willing to kill those who would force him to. I had imagined the Maccabees as liberators, forced to fight for what they held dear and emerging victorious against all odds by the sheer power and strength of their convictions. But that wasn't the whole story. Yes, they were pious zealots for their faith, and yes they were willing to risk it all for what they believed in. But they went further than that. They killed other Jews who didn't believe as they did. They forcibly converted people who wanted to assimilate into the dominant culture. Not content with winning their own right to religious freedom, once they won the war and re-captured the Temple, they imposed their religious views on everyone under their power.

I'm less comfortable with this truth. The first book of Maccabees not only praises the religious zealotry of the Maccabees against the other Jews, their intolerance of a more assimilated Judaism, but in fact legitimizes their role as priest-kings and subsequent dynasty because of the extent of their religious zealotry, their willingness to fight for what they believe to be the greater good, and to impose that on everyone in their path.

In today's world, we call this type of action religious terrorism. Christians who blow up abortion clinics are also committing murder for the sake of their beliefs in the greater good. Muslims who fly planes into civilian targets are also committing murder for the sake of their beliefs in the greater good. And the Jewish fundamentalists behind the assassination of Itzhak Rabin in 1995 were doing the same thing.

So the truth about the Maccabees is a slippery one. National liberators or religious fanatics? Freedom fighters or terrorists? The truth depends on who's telling their story, and for what purpose.

And what about the truth about Hanukkah itself? The books of Maccabees tell us that in 164 B.C.E. Judah Maccabee captured Jerusalem and the Temple in Jerusalem was freed and reconsecrated: "After having recovered Jerusalem, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the desecrated one, and new holy vessels to be made." Then, the holiday of Hanukkah was established: "When the fire had been kindled anew upon the altar and the lamps of the candlestick lit, the dedication of the altar was celebrated for eight days amid sacrifices and songs."

But you might have noticed that something is missing here. What about the great miracle of oil intended to burn only one day instead lasting for eight -- the reason for dreidels and latkes and the lighting of the menorah?

Turns out that this was a rabbinic innovation. You see, Hanukkah, not being a holiday mentioned in the Jewish Bible, and celebrated by the Maccabees as a festival of the Temple's re-dedication (the word "Hanukkah" means "dedication"), was at best a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar for many centuries. About 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees, the Talmud relays the story of the miracle of the oil. Scholars don't know why this story appears at this time, and suspect that its supernatural nature was intended to legitimize a holiday born of human zealotry -- a type of fanaticism that the rabbis were very uncomfortable with and in fact treated very harshly -- to give a reason, based on God's power rather than human power, to observe an eight-day celebration that includes religious festival prayers and the prohibition of fasting and mourning. But even with this boost, Hanukkah was still a minor holiday -- really right up to the 20th century. The promotion of Hanukkah to a major Jewish festival got its impetus from two things that you might never have thought of in the same sentence before: Zionism and Christmas.

As the early pioneers in Israel found themselves fighting to defend against attacks, they began to connect with the ancient Jewish fighters who stood their ground in the same place. The holiday of Hanukkah, with its positive portrayal of the Jewish freedom fighter, had deep meaning in the psyche of the early Zionists who shaped their lives and identities in accordance with the message of national independence and religious freedom. This meaning deepened in a post-Holocaust world in which awareness of oppression and issues pertaining to freedom of religious expression remain part of Jewish identity. And in an increasingly secular and commercial world, Jews in North America have sympathized with Hanukkah for similar reasons of maintaining their identity against a dominant culture at the time of year when Christmas trees and carols are inescapable.

So there are many, many truths about Hanukkah. When I light the menorah with my children this year, I'll be highlighting the truth that helps them come to terms with their religious and cultural identity as Jews, at the same time as I teach them to temper pride and piety with tolerance and acceptance of those with different beliefs and practices.

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