With sleigh bells ringing from far and near, Chanukah once again is beginning to look a lot like Christmas – and almost no one seems to think there is anything wrong with that.
Well, there is a lot wrong with that.
Jewish law tops the list. There is a whole class of laws and regulations usually referred to as “chukat ha’goyim,” or laws and customs of the nations (meaning every nation but our own). The Talmud refers to it as darchei ha’emori, the way of the Amorites. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67a and b for some interesting examples.) In brief, “chukat goyim” that are idolatrous in nature, or are based on pagan superstition rooted in belief, are forbidden.
Chanukah was always meant as a home-bound observance; the only outward sign of its celebration is placing the chanukiah outside the front door or in a front window.
Chanukah also always was meant as a minor observance. Christmas, on the other hand, is one of Christianity’s two big holidays, and has profound meaning for Christians.
Judaism has its profound days. Pesach celebrates the birth of freedom into the world, as well as the miraculous Exodus from Egypt. Shavuot, our birthday as God’s kingdom of priests, marks the singular moment in human history when God spoke to an entire people, not just to one lonely person. Sukkot celebrates both God’s sheltering presence over us, and the natural world He created. (Seriously, can someone tell me of a greater miracle than the survival of the Jewish people against all odds? If that is not God’s sheltering presence, there is no such thing.) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are semi-solemn days of inner reflection.
There is little about Chanukah, however, that is profound in any way. Yet more Jews will celebrate it than any other Jewish observance.
They will do so-we all will do so-for the wrong reasons.
Chanukah, as I have noted in the past, is probably the most myth-begotten festival of the Jewish year, starting with the cruse of oil, and ending with the war being an all-out battle against Hellenism. That it exists at all testifies to the minor festival’s popularity with the people, rather than any religious significance.
Chanukah is not mentioned anywhere in the Tanach, yet both 1 and 2 Maccabees, which deal directly with the events and personalities of Chanukah, were available for inclusion. The full biblical canon was still being debated 200 years after the events of Chanukah, but there is no record of anyone even raising the issue of whether to include either or both books. On the other hand, there were debates over the Book of Esther and the Song of Songs.
The Mishnah – the product of the sages of the first and second centuries C.E. – says virtually nothing about Chanukah. The Babylonian G’mara that follows it (200 to 600 C.E.) has more to say about Chanukah, but little of what it says goes beyond establishing its rituals.
Chanukah does not celebrate the miracle of a cruse of oil that burned for seven days longer than it should have. If such an extraordinary event happened, it would have had a prominent place in the contemporary account of the revolt found in 1 Maccabees. The book knows nothing of such a miracle. Josephus, in Antiquities 12.7.6-7 316-325, knows it only as “the Festival of Lights,” but admits he does not know why it was called that. Later rabbinic sources, needing to justify the celebration, suggested different versions of a “miracle”; the cruse of oil was just the most popular.
Then there were the supposed heroes, the Hasmoneans. They re-established the kingdom and sat on its throne, but they had no right to either.
One of them, John Hyrcanus, violated a basic principle of Jewish law by forcing an entire population of Idumeans to convert to Judaism.
His son, the King-Priest Alexander Jannaeus (his Greek names speaks volumes about how anti-Hellenistic this revolt was not), showed such disdain for the people that a civil war resulted. During it, he ordered the crucifixion of 800 of the early class of sages, and then had their families slaughtered in front of them as they died slowly on their crosses.
Later, a battle over succession led one Hasmonean prince to open the gates of Jerusalem secretly to Pompey, putting Judea in Roman hands.
Yet Chanukah today does have a purpose, and even a need for a public presence.
Chanukah represents the birth of freedom of religion, the right of people to worship as they choose. That is something desperately worth celebrating in our world.
Buddhists and Muslims are battling it out in Southern Thailand. Buddhists and Christians are at war in Uganda. Wahabi and Sufi Muslims are killing each other in Somalia, while Sunni and Shiite are doing the same throughout the Middle East. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs break out in their own battles in India. A tense peace between Christians and Muslims requires peacekeepers to maintain.
Churches, mosques, and synagogues are subjected to attacks all over the world.
Freedom of religion is under attack in America by the radical Christian right, who would turn this into a Christian nation in law as well as in fact. In some ways, the rigidly religious Jewish right in Israel seeks to control religious life there.
Chanukah does not come close to Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot in meaning or significance, and does not deserve to be treated as if it does.
Chanukah does deserve to be celebrated, however, not for what it is not – the Festival of Light – but for what it truly is: The Festival of Right.
May the light of the chanukiah spread from our homes, to our streets, to our nation, to our world.
Now that would be a great miracle indeed.