Chanukah: Minor Festival, Major Message

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for this paper about Pilgrims and Native Americans. It spoke of how the legacy of the Thanksgiving story often falls prey to deconstructionists, who value historical truth over cultural myth at all cost. Rather than have children- and, for that matter, adults- celebrate a cherished American belief in a common appreciation of blessings, they would argue that historical reality in all of its messiness- or at least, the probability of its being reality- must trump exercises in feel-good nostalgia rooted in legend.

So here we are, poised on the proverbial doorstep of Chanukah, facing exactly the same challenge. The truth behind Chanukah is far more complex than the Yeshiva or Hebrew School version that we were all brought up on. The Maccabees’ armed struggle against the Greeks was not universally admired within the world of the Pharisees. They represented a model of warrior-priest that the rabbis were not all that comfortable with. All of the participants in the story, especially the rabbis, tried to “spin it,” if you will, in a way that would make it more consonant with their way of looking at the world. Rather than celebrate the military victory of the Maccabees per se, the rabbis accentuated God’s role in their triumph. Read Al Hanissim carefully, and you’ll see what I mean.

And not to be lost in all of this political infighting is the voice of the ancient Jews themselves, who eventually obliged the rabbis to make Chanukkah more of a holiday than they were inclined to.

On top of all that, there is serious historical speculation that the eight days of Chanukah were, originally, a substitute for the celebration of Sukkot that could not be held that year, owing to the defiling of the Temple. Where that leaves the miracle of the cruse of oil, well… at the very least, it casts doubt on the historicity of the tradition.

Each and every year, the same discussion comes up as Chanukah approaches. And, each and every year, much the same as with Thanksgiving, I can’t help but feel that the deconstructionists are missing the point. Of course historical truth matters. But there are different kinds of truth that are also of value, and different ways to discern that truth. As regards Chanukah, the legends that have grown up around the holiday are every bit as important to our Jewish souls, if not more so, than the details of political infighting among the Jews of the second century BCE.

In the sixty-three years since the modern State of Israel was founded, it has grown, in a military sense, into a regional superpower. The Israel Defense Forces are no one’s version of undermanned, under-armed warrior priests. They are fierce, dedicated and well-trained defenders of Israel’s sovereignty, and a source of pride to us all. They are the descendants of the Maccabees, but something entirely other.

And yet, the sense of “the few against the many,” so eloquently expressed in the aforementioned Al Hanissim prayer, sadly remains as relevant today as it was more than two thousand years ago. On far too many issues of pressing importance, even existential importance, Israel continues- even with its military prowess- to be made to feel isolated and alone in the world arena. With enemies on multiple borders poised and ready to fight unconventional, asymmetrical wars that pose a grave danger to Israel’s civilian population, Israel is a classic example of how a nation armed like a superpower can still feel, and be, extremely vulnerable. And, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat hovers over Israel constantly.

And let us not forget the myriad challenges facing American Jews, whose issues with assimilation- our own, modern version of “Hellenization”- are in no way inconsequential. We have our own daunting challenges.

Chanukah is classified as a minor festival in our tradition. We go to work and school, and conduct our lives more or less as usual. But from my perspective, the “legend,” if you will, of Chanukah transcends discussions of its historicity, and has the power to inspire us all. Bayamim hahem, baz’man hazeh… In spite of overwhelming odds, even the most threatening challenges can be overcome. The Maccabees did it long ago. Israel can do it today. And so can we.

Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Chanukah!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.