AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Chanukah, Preserving the Flame

Posted by: StevenBrown

November 28, 2013

This post continues our Chanukah series exploring the idea that: “Jews stand for light in the darkness, and every Jew can rekindle the flame of another.” We are pleased to feature a range of respondents discussing how this concept “illuminates” their perspectives and work. Visit here to read the introduction to this series – and share your favorite educational practice that lights Jewish “sparks” in the next generation!
By: Steve Brown
On Chanukah we read in the Al Hanissim prayer: “In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.” But history teaches us that in fact, many Jews were very happy to go Greek! The Hellenizing culture of the world was embraced by many segments of the Jewish population of the holy land, and Chanukah is as much a story of civil strife amongst Jews as it is a celebration of a minority’s victory over religious tyranny. It was then, as it remains now, a moment in history when Jews asked: How Jewish shall we be in a predominately non-Jewish world?  Deja Pew, perhaps?
Back in the days of the Maccabees, it was a passionate minority of believers who rededicated the Temple and relit the flame of Jewish communal life and practice. When Judaism was threatened by overwhelming secular forces of assimilation and cultural pluralism, it was the fervor and passion of those committed to Jewish practice and law that saved Judaism from extinction and preserved its essential flame to pass on to future generations.
The story of Chanukah, it seems to me, should speak to how we consider what we have learned from the recent Pew report. For me, both personally and professionally, it means that only intensive, deep immersion in Jewish life, practice, knowledge and behavior can sustain the Jewish people. “Greek” Judaism just does not work in the long run. While we live in two civilizations, we need to enhance the intensity of our Jewish life with active immersion in Jewish sources, knowledge and practice.
As a foundation committed to intensive, immersive Jewish education through day schools and overnight Jewish summer camps, AVI CHAI has committed itself to sustaining the passionate and eternal flame burning in the soul of Jews of all denominations who see Judaism as central to their lives, and wish to see the flame grow even brighter to enlighten and enhance the lives of more and more Jews everywhere.
In II Maccabees, we read of the act of religious purposefulness which Chanukah commemorates. While the Maccabees were rebelling and waging their insurgency in the Judean hills, the pagans, who controlled the Temple, did not allow for the observance of Sukkot that year. But the Maccabees were steadfast in their belief that the universe required the water libation (nisuach hamayim) at the altar on Sukkot to ensure rain would come in the winter. Thus, when the Temple was rededicated (an imitation of Solomon’s original eight-day dedication celebration), they observed a second Sukkot (Sukkot She’bikislev), in order to perform the water libation. This act of dedication to Jewish law is what restored Judaism to its central place in the lives of Jews, and is possibly what we are really celebrating on Chanukah.
I believe that the pach hashemen and the eight nights of light, which is the most well-known symbol of Chanukah, earned its place in our tradition not so much because of its historical accuracy but because of its powerful imagery and message. The flames of the chanukiah serve as a reminder that the real miracle of Chanukah was the struggle to retain a faith tradition, a counter-cultural impetus for living a rich and fulfilling Jewish life. Their light reminds us that we struggle today, just as the Maccabees did in their time. Even as we live in today’s world, we can reaffirm during this Chanukah holiday how the eternal Jewish flame can illumine our families and future, giving us joy and happiness.
Hag urim sameah!
Steve Brown is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

WordPress Video Lightbox