For the first time in many years, Christmas lands in the middle of Chanukkah. Aside from the warnings about not leaving your candles burning when you go to the movies, what difference should it make?
Well, both holidays have undergone a significant redefinition over the years, and especially in America. For American Jews (and maybe for others as well), our recasting of Chanukkah as a holiday of light and joy and religious freedom is a good thing, and worth considering.
The story of the Maccabees is a story of religious intolerance. They fought a war not as much against the Greco-Assyrians as against the Hellenized Jews of their own community. In fact, were most of us living in those times, we would likely be the targets of Maccabean rage. The Maccabees were fundamentalists, convinced that the influences of other cultures and ways of thinking were polluting the sanctity of the Temple and the Judaism practiced around it. Mattathias sought to purge the community of corrupting influence – and corrupting people.
The Hasmonean descendants of the original victors were themselves corrupted after a few generations and became far worse than the fellow Jews they had defeated. By the time the rabbis of the Talmud answered the question “What is Chanukkah?” the historical event had evolved into a theological one that reflected more accepted values.
When we speak of Chanukkah as the struggle for religious expression, we are using the miracle of the oil as an excuse for affirming an American value – one that has been embraced by contemporary Judaism, to be sure, but definitely not part of either the original Chanukkah story nor the rabbinic retelling. What is lost in Chanukkah’s particular meaning – the Temple, the purity of sacrifices, fidelity to the covenant – is gained in universal meaning. In this case, I consider the revisionist version the better choice, especially in a world that needs no further justification for campaigns against heretics, reformers and foreign influencers.
The same evolution has transformed Christmas into a “holiday season” of peace, good will and material indulgence. That most Christians consider Christmas an inclusive and universal holiday, as opposed to the celebration of a particular religious belief, ought to give us hope that some segments of our human family are moving closer together, rather than farther apart.
I add one note of caution, lest you take these few words as permission to erect a tree in your living room. Essentially, both holidays remain religious celebrations for their respective communities. Whatever they have in common, they are not interchangeable. Let us offer the same respect to Christians about Christmas as we rightfully expect from Christians about Passover, Shabbat and Chanukkah.