Takeaways from Chanukah 2011/5772

 Posted by on December 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with: , , ,  Categories:
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By: Yossi Prager

As Chanukah draws to an end, I have begun to think about the takeaways from the holiday that I hope will inspire me well into 2012.  Rather than focus on the traditions of the holiday, my thoughts drift to the underlying events and the sense of pride and purpose they give me as a Jew in the modern world.  I hope you, too, will find meaning in these reflections.

1.  The Jews carry the longest-standing continuous culture and religion in world history. The events of Chanukah took place in the Second Century before the common era, approximately 2,200 years ago.  Jesus would not be born for almost 200 years, Mohammed much later.  Even historians who believe that the stories of Abraham and his children are fables and who reject the archeological evidence for King David must concede that by the era of Chanukah, Jews represented a unique monotheistic tradition whose values differed fundamentally from the surrounding cultures.  To take just one example, here are photos of coins minted by the Antiochus of the Chanukah story.


The central feature, as in American coinage today, is the engraved image of the ruler.  By contrast, the Maccabean coin below does not contain human figures.


This is, of course, in obedience to the Ten Commandments, which prohibits graven images of people.  But the difference goes deeper.  Human images were prohibited because God is alone as the Creator of all people.  Understanding that God is the ultimate power limits the degree to which powerful people can justify oppressing the weak and provides the basis for a wide range of social justice laws.  Aspects of this Jewish value system embodied in the Torah ultimately made their way into Christianity, Islam and Western society, including into social justice movements that have transformed America since its founding.

2.  Judaism contains a powerful and competitive set of ideas. By the time the events of Chanukah occurred, Hellenism was the dominant culture in the Western world.  Both Egypt to Israel’s south and the Seluecid Empire in Syria to the north were incubators of Greek culture.  Even in Jerusalem, elites interested in importing Hellenism had built a gymnasia for (naked) athletics.  Antiochus’ decrees were the equivalent of “pushing on an open door.”  Greek culture was not only widely popular, its offerings were also compelling: sophisticated art, architecture, philosophy, literature and religion that had reshaped the world.  Yet an old man and his sons effectively made a case for Judaism that inspired an outnumbered people to take up arms for their counter-cultural way of life.  If the Maccabees succeeded in this most challenging of environments, we should be able to help people today understand the richness and relevance of the Torah, which continues to offer compelling ideas for the modern world. Senator Joe Lieberman’s new book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath is one such attempt.

3.  The sovereignty of the Jewish State should not be taken for granted. The story taught to young children is that Chanukah not only restored the Temple to Jewish hands but also ended the war with the Greek/Seleucids and began an era of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  The first book of Maccabees, a work originally written in Hebrew during the Hasmonean Dynasty, tells a different story.  The battle with the Seleucid Empire continued for another 30 years, and the Jewish State engaged in both war and diplomacy in its defense.  Once independent, the Hasmonean dynasty lasted approximately 100 years until it succumbed to the Romans.  Today, those of us born after the modern State of Israel was a reality, and who live in an America largely free of virulent anti-Semitism, cannot imagine life without the protection and self-confidence provided by the sovereign State of Israel.  The persecution of the Jews by Antiochus prior to Chanukah and by the Romans following the fall of the Hasmonean Dynasty should remind us that we cannot count on good times continuing on their own.  So long as Israel has enemies, its sovereignty depends on Jews in Israel and elsewhere acting on its behalf.

In a collection of essays about Purim and Chanukah (p. 176), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, captures some of the points I have been making in the most eloquent summary of Chanukah that I have read:

Politically, Israel [in those days] was hardly a state.  It was weak politically, militarily, and economically, spiritually confused and religiously fluctuating.  It was faced with a mighty competing civilization, Hellenism, and the heavens were closed.  Not a single ray of light penetrated the mist of skepticism.  Nevertheless, an old man with his sons had the faith of Abraham, the courage and fortitude of the founders of the nation, and declared war on an execrable enemy many times stronger and better organized than the Jewish community in Jerusalem.  No prophet promised a reward, no vision inspired them, no message gave them solace.  It was an act of faith par excellence.  This is their message to the generations: “Do not believe that our people is abandoned of God.” (II Maccabees 7:16)

As Chanukah ends, I wonder about a different point raised by Rabbi Soloveitchik: unlike all other Jewish holidays, Chanukah has no sacred text to be read in synagogue.  The Book of Maccabees is part of the Catholic Bible but not the Jewish one, and is largely unknown to most Jews.  Instead of public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.  What can parents and Jewish educators learn from this method of teaching about how to inspire others to more active participation in Jewish life and connection to the State of Israel?  This is not a rhetorical question; I look forward to your thoughts.

Yossi Prager
Executive Director – North America