Hanukkah today is a holiday of great irony. Though not a Biblical holiday, and certainly not Judaism’s most essential holiday, Hanukkah has taken on an exaggerated importance in America, due I think, to its calandrical proximity with one of Christianity’s most important festivals.
Hanukkah commemorates the war in the year 166 B.C.E. between the Jews in Israel and the Greek empire within which Israel of that era found itself. No two cultures could be more different than that of the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were polytheistic and emphasized the esthetic, as their statues that we visit in our museums illustrate. Their perfect physical body chiseled in the Olympics and cultivated in Greek art and writing is iconic. In contrast the Jewish people were monotheists and a nation not known for their esthetic accomplishments, but rather their theological, judicial, and ethical ones. The Jewish people fought a war against the Greeks to retain their unique religion and not assimilate into Hellenistic culture and beliefs.
We light candles on Hanukkah because Hanukkah is about bringing the light of ethical monotheism into the world, about bringing the light of spirituality into a time of deified physicality, epitomized by the pervasive Greek culture of physicality and its worship. Hanukkah is indeed a battle of light and dark, polytheism and monotheism, the physical and the spiritual, the outside culture against the small Jewish nation trying to withstand assimilation and disappearance.
How ironic that Hanukkah, an anti-assimilationist holiday, has become the holiday of Jewish assimilationism, with the giving of gifts to imitate the Christmas tradition and the extravagant spending on parties which recall their non-Jewish counterparts.
For the previous generation of American Jews the opportunity of the American melting pot was Judaism’s undoing. Jewish people in alarming numbers from that generation assimilated into American culture, and feeling they could not be both Jews and Americans, exchanged their Jewish identity for the promise of American prosperity.
Though we live in a new era, one whose watchword is multiculturalism and not assimilation, it alas has come too late for the high percentage of American Jews whose grandparents were Jewish but whose grandchildren are not. At this time of year, when we might be tempted to use Hanukkah as a way of feeling part and parcel of the outside culture, of having our winter holiday also, let us resist this temptation to fit in, and instead take back our winter holidays for what they should be. A time of learning what it means to resist the American melting pot, a time for all of us, Jew, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, to celebrate our difference and separateness; -to see each of our uniqueness as more valuable than fitting in.
The culmination of Hanukkah’s successful military campaign two millennia ago was the rededication of the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The symbol of this rededication was the lighting of the oil lamps, the menorah, with pure olive oil. This act, the bringing of light into the darkness, symbolizes the true Jewish take on Hanukkah. This Hanukkah let us celebrate, not presents and fanfare, but a single small light, adding one additional light on each subsequent night of Hanukkah and taking in the message that bringing light into the darkness is really what Hanukkah is about.