The War on Hanukkah

Allen: Hanukkah always brings back some warm and fuzzy memories. Dancing around the menorahs, spinning the dreidels, flipping latkes. Most of all, belting out the lyrics to our classic holiday carol:

When You [God] has prepared the slaughter for the blaspheming foe,  

then I will complete with a song of hymn for the dedication of Your altar […]

Bare Your holy arm and hasten the end for salvation

Avenge the vengeance of your servant’s blood from the wicked nation.

Don’t recognize those lyrics? Look again– they’re a word-for-word selection from the first and last stanzas of Maoz Tzur. To say it’s not quite politically correct is a bit of an understatement.  Hence my suggestion for your next IfNotNow campaign, Aron: end American Jewish support for “Rock of Ages.” But in all seriousness, isn’t there an ethical problem here? After all, if the Hanukkah revolt occurred in the modern Middle East, most of us would be on the side of the assimilationist Jews whom Matisyahu and his sons were so keen to slaughter. (If you don’t believe me, reread the book of Maccabees.) “But Hanukkah’s not about that today,” you might protest. Well, no, it’s not — but only because later generations of Jews revised the original story to fit more liberal assumptions and narratives. What religious meaning — if any — does Hanukkah hold for you?

Aron: Shulem Deen, who left Skverer ultra-Orthodoxy for secularism, asked a similar (but less incisive) question in an op-ed in The Forward last year. In a conversation with another secular friend, he found himself defending the Maccabees, though he couldn’t understand why. How could he, someone who had left a dogmatic religious sect, defend the Hasmoneans who did little besides build “a renewed temple with its cult of animal sacrifice, a corrupt and fratricidal Hasmonean dynasty and eight days with which to meekly compete with jolly old Christmas”?

He realized that what he was defending was not the Hasmoneans, per se, but rather faith. Fully rejecting the Hasmoneans in favor of the Hellenists, he notes, is a subtle way of rejecting faith in favor of rationalism. He argues that to be fully human, however, requires both. He concludes by stating, “When Hanukkah comes around, it isn’t the Maccabees I celebrate, but Jerusalem and the enduring faith in the best of humanity’s intuitions that even I, godless heathen, cannot help but feel — and believe.” While I find Deen’s embrace of non-rationalism compelling, it sidesteps the question (similarly to how I sidestepped yours last week). Can’t we embrace humanity without being dishonest about the history of Hanukkah?

As far as your question goes, honestly, I’m not really sure that Hanukkah holds much religious meaning for me. What are we supposed to learn from it? To value theocracy?  To appreciate when your lightbulb lasts longer than usual? Even if the revisionist history of Hanukkah were accurate, the current version of the holiday would be hypocritical. If Hannukah is supposed to be about preserving our independence and living as proud Jews, why have we tried to make the holiday as much like Christmas as possible? Why are we so jazzed about the fact that the Hasmoneans preserved traditions that we (you and I largely included) aren’t interested in preserving ourselves? And, before anyone responds, “We’re celebrating the fact that the Hasmoneans gave us the freedom to choose whether to follow our traditions,” remember that the Hasmoneans forcibly converted the entire kingdom of Edom. They weren’t interested in choice.

So, I’ll turn the challenge around: can you come up with a vision of Hanukkah that sidesteps these pitfalls?

Allen: That’s not fair- – now I have to rebut my own rant. I’ll do my best to defend the holiday, but I sincerely apologize in advance to young Jews everywhere for retroactively ruining their childhood memories. (For the record, I could get behind a celebration of longer-lasting lightbulbs, in the spirit of lowering our utilities bill.)

At the outset, it should be clear that there’s nothing wrong with singing and dancing or giving gifts or lighting candles. On the contrary — the religious practice of Hanukkah is beautiful, and it’s beyond unnecessary to throw that all away because of what some zealots did two millennia ago. At the same time, our religion should push us to be more thoughtful and more ethical, and that won’t happen if we’re not honest with ourselves. We need to stop beating around the Hanukkah bush and admit there are some ugly religious skeletons tucked away in our closet.

I’m reminded of the Day of the Vow, a holiday which under South African apartheid celebrated the anniversary of the 1838 Battle of Blood River — so named because white settlers massacred thousands of natives in a single day. When Mandela was elected, he chose to rebrand the holiday the Day of Reconciliation — a time to come to terms with the nation’s story.

Something similar is needed here. We need a time to come to terms with our own complicated Jewish story. Like any other religion, we have our own share of saints and persecutors. A Matisyahu for every Akiva, a Pinchas for every Aaron, an Amir for every Rabin. So imagine with me for a moment another type of Hanukkah:

Eight days devoted to combating ideological monomania, a more urgent task now than ever.

Eight days of giving time and money to charitable organizations (like Faith in New York) that stand firm for the best of the religious ethic in all its diversity.

Eight days exploring what we share with our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan brothers. We all have our winter festivals, our light in the midst of the year’s darkest hour.

Eight days of visiting other religions’ prayer spaces, taking care not to break their own sacred vessels.

And when we settle back down at night to spin dreidels with the kids, we can finally say without rolling our eyes: Nes gadol hayah poh.

What do you say, Aron — “Will you light my candle?”

Aron: I’ll light your candle if you clean up the spices you spilled all over the stovetop.

I like what you’ve laid out — we certainly need to dedicate more time to learning about our neighbors’ religions and practices, and the religious intolerance of both the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans should encourage us to model a more welcoming society.

I want to suggest a complementary vision. The Hasmoneans certainly didn’t treat their neighbors phenomenally (see above re: Edomites), but a more prominent theme in  the book of Maccabees is the Hasmoneans’ intolerance of other Jews. In the thousands of years since, we’ve learned to be a bit more accepting of one another — no one is going around forcibly circumcising other Jews — but it’s clear that there’s a long way to go. A new bill making its way through Israel’s Knesset would punish mixed-gender prayer at Robinson’s Arch (the Western Wall’s lesser known little sibling) with jail time.  Further, let’s not forget all the times that we — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and other Jews in America — mock and criticize each other. On top of that, let’s not forget that some members of our communities have been virulently critical of and hateful towards Jews on the left, particularly non-Zionists and anti-Zionists (and even liberal Zionists).

We don’t need to go into all of the messy details of why we’re all calling each other assimilationists and fascists and self-hating Jews and heretics and Nazis and idiots and terrorists and oppressors and so on in order to realize that it wouldn’t hurt to set aside eight days to engage with Jews from different backgrounds.

Let’s take time during the holiday to educate ourselves about the ways that our communities could be more welcoming to Jews with different practices, experiences, opinions, sexual orientations, and racial and economic backgrounds. In this context, I think it’s important not to place the onus on our marginalized members to educate us — we’ve got to take it upon ourselves to read up on and show up for JFREJ, the URJ’s Jew’V’nation, Keshet, Footsteps, and the other organizations out there providing spaces for Jews to be themselves.


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