It’s almost Chanukkah, one of the most misunderstood holidays on the Jewish calendar. Far from being the “festival of religious freedom” that the mis-telling of the story implies, it is actually a holiday that celebrates just the opposite. The Hasmoneans, a family of Temple priests, fomented a rebellion against the Jews of the Second Temple period who wanted to liberalize Jewish observance and introduce Hellenistic culture into Jewish expression. Civil war broke out between the two factions, with the liberals enjoying the patronage of the Assyrian rulers of Palestine. The Hasmoneans successfully purged both the Temple and the Holy Land of foreign influence. It was a revolution more akin to the overthrow of the Shah in Iran than to the establishment of Roger Williams’s Rhode Island.
In our day and age, the holiday has become a feeble attempt to compete with the omnipresent and omnivorous Christmas season. Rabbis have fought against this kind of revisionist approach with the passion of the Maccabees, but with nowhere near the results. And, truth be told, this year I am relieved.
The last thing we need in our world is a holiday that celebrates the violent victory of religious fundamentalists over those who dissent. In 5763, in 2002, we have had our fill of religious extremists interested in isolating or eliminating those with a more global perspective. As upside-down as it may be, a Chanukkah that celebrates religious tolerance strikes me as the more Jewishly defensible message right now.
Don’t take my message to be an encouragement to wallow in the commercialism of the season, nor to imitate the ways of our Christian neighbors. No trees, no stockings and, I hope it goes without saying, no ham. But if the message of peace and good will sounds more appealing to you right now than the message of war and outrage, don’t feel guilty. Feel good.
As you light each candle, let the growing light of this remembrance remind you that we renew miracles each year at this time. Sometimes the light unexpectedly illuminates the Temple. And sometimes it unexpectedly illuminates our hearts