The Irony of Jewish Identity – A Response to “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah”
Recently, a friend shared with me an op-ed from The New York Times entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” written by a self-proclaimed assimilated Jew. In the article, the author describes the tension he feels in attempting to convince his children of the relative merits of Chanukah over Christmas while simultaneously grappling with the fact that the holiday, in his words, “in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.” The hypocrisy he is bemoaning is that “our assimilationist answer to Christmas is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.”
What saddened me most about this article was not the hypocrisy he refers to, but rather a different, while not unrelated, contradiction. To understand this contradiction, we first need to ask the Gemara’s question in search of the quintessence of the holiday: Mai Chanukah?
The central focus of contemporary Chanukah observance is the lighting of Chanukah candles in commemoration of the single cruse of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. However, the earliest historical sources clearly indicate that the holiday was originally established to mark the unlikely Hasmonean military victory over the mighty Seleucid army and the rededication of the Temple that followed in its wake.
This is evident from the text of Al Hanisim, the prayer meant to express the motifs of the holiday, which makes no mention of the miracle of the oil. The holiday was enacted to celebrate the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty and rededication of the Temple; as such, the Temple’s destruction and the ensuing loss of that sovereignty gave rise to a period of uncertainty as to whether or not Chanukah would continue to be observed (Rosh Hashanah 18b). Several holidays marking similar achievements during the Second Temple period were discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple, when such celebrations would have felt hollow; the conspicuous omission of the Chanukah festival and its laws from the Mishnah suggests that similar doubt existed regarding the continued celebration of Chanukah in the diaspora.
So how did the holiday of Chanukah survive? And once it survived, why has our infatuation with the miracle of the oil overtaken the military victory as the holiday’s central theme?
The victory of Chanuka needs to be qualified, as the Talmudic discussion indicates that it extended beyond the assertion of military supremacy and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty.
In the centuries prior to Antiochus IV’s reign, the Jews had been living peaceably in Israel under Persian and later Greek rule. Antiochus, in his attempt to propagate the Greek’s Hellenistic ideology and pagan theology, banned many central Jewish rituals. The revolt of the Chashmonaim was motivated not by political subjugation, but by the religious persecution of the Jews by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV that accompanied it. Only revolt and the reclamation of autonomy would enable them to freely practice the tradition they held so dear. Therefore, at its core, the Chanukah story is the struggle against the imposition of foreign religious practice by an intolerant entity, waged by those who sought to protect their own Jewish identity.
While the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty and rededication of the Temple would, admittedly, have been difficult celebrations to maintain in the diaspora, the struggle to maintain Jewish identity remained relevant as Judaism settled into a long period of exile. How often have we, as Jews, been confronted with enemies determined to snuff out our religion and replace it with their own? The message of Chanukah continues to rally us exiled wanderers, declaring, “You can burn down our Temple, you can kick us out of our land, but you can never stomp out our identity!”
Unlike the miracle of the military victory, the miracle of the oil and the mitzvah of candle lighting that memorializes it speaks much more directly to the persistence of Jewish identity in exile. This single, humble cruse of oil was by any natural means sufficient to sustain a burning flame for 24 hours. Yet miraculously, the oil burned for a full eight days, far beyond anyone’s expectations.
Upon the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, the Jews were unceremoniously cast out from their homeland, led away as slaves and deposited in an environment fraught with hostile neighbors. By any reasonable prediction, the last Jew should have been swallowed up by the darkness of exile within just a few centuries. But with God’s help we defied the historical odds, and the flame of our Jewish identity burns bright to this very day.
Let’s return to the contradiction in the Times article.
On the one hand, despite the author’s misinformed reservations about Chanukah, he ultimately decides to suppress those emotions in favor of appointing Chanukah as his family’s official winter holiday – thereby championing Jewish identity to some degree.
On the other hand, he characterizes Chanukah as “an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.” While the Chashmonaim may not have been the paradigm of tolerance, he is utterly missing what Chanukah really represents: an unwavering commitment to Jewish identity, and the determination to fight for the freedom to maintain it.
In the article, the author compares himself to one of the Hellenized Jews from the Chanukah story, highlighting their common disapproval of circumcision and willingness to eat pork. However, he may actually have more in common with the Chashmonaim than he realizes.
An obvious frustration of his centers around the inescapability from the Christmas spirit, as he says, “Most of the year, it isn’t hard for our family to feel both American and Jewish. But in December – when there are wreaths and … inflatable Santas everywhere you look – that dual identity becomes more of a question.” From his perspective, the domination of Christmas in American culture threatens his Jewish connection.
He concludes the article by saying, “at the end of the day, it’s all about beating Santa.” If we can look past the cynical undertones and manage to ignore the flawed and, frankly, offensive interpretation which prompted this attitude in the first place, we can appreciate his closing statement for what it is: a conscious decision to fight for Jewish identity.
Like the Chashmonaim of old, the author is making a courageous attempt to hold onto his Jewish identity in the face of an overwhelming cultural force that threatens it. Buying a few presents may not be on par with rededicating the Beit Hamikdash and carolers may not be as dangerous as a decree against Shabbat observance, but at the end of the day, this author seems to be living the Chanukah struggle in his own life.
The real tragedy here is that the author and countless assimilated Jews like him fail to recognize that Chanukah, with its message of religious freedom and the perseverance of Jewish identity, is both relevant and inspiring to contemporary Jews.
Ironic? Maybe. But certainly not hypocritical.
Photo Credit: Perfect Words in the World