When people are asked to rank their favorite Jewish holidays, Hanukkah always polls high if not at the top of the list. However, if the question is which holiday is the most important, the results are not as resounding for Hanukkah. There is a disconnect between the candle lights, latkes, gifts, and games and what the celebration is all about. Everyone knows about the nasty Greeks and the feisty oil container that could but not so much about what it all means.
The public confusion is reflected in Hanukkah’s multi-faceted persona. First, there is the unexpected military victory of the Maccabean guerilla force against the powerful Seleucid army. Socially, there is the reassertion of traditional values against the intrusion of Hellenist culture into Jewish life. Finally, there is the political power struggle between Jewish factions trying to negotiate for position within the ancient world of Judea. None of these conflicts fully account for how Hanukkah is described in the Rabbinic, apocryphal, and modern literature accounting for Hanukkah’s identity crisis.
One way to synthesize all of these elements is to see Hanukkah as representing the fight for Jewish continuity. The holidays prescribed in the Torah are inner directed toward the well-being of the Jewish people – spiritually on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and physically on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. To be sure, there is a spiritual component to the three festivals. On Pesach, we reenact the exodus from slavery to freedom. On Shavuot, we acknowledge the gift of the Torah and on Sukkot we remember the transitional experience in the desert during the passage from Egypt to Israel. It is true that on Sukkot, we invite the other nations of the world to join in our communal celebration. Nonetheless, the Biblical holidays are internally generated from within the body of the Jewish people.
Hanukkah is different. It is triggered from the outside and is a statement of the importance of Jewish endurance in the face of external hostility. The Greek threat was both physical and theological and on Hanukkah we remember the first time in which this battle played out in history and how the Jewish people successfully battled to maintain their national integrity. Taking into account all the available Books of the Maccabees and the recorded histories, the result is a knotty narrative. In the long-term, despite the Maccabean battle cries and the miraculous cruse of oil, Hanukkah is more about realistic continuity and less about absolute purity. The Hanukkah story reflects survival of the Jewish people in an increasingly complex world, a world where they encountered another culture that had great power and appeal. The Hanukkah story is ancient, but it is still the story of our world.
What is the best way to ensure Jewish continuity and resist the temptation to assimilate into the surrounding world? The question is a perennial one. There will be those who will favor an inclusive approach and try to harmonize Jewish values and practices with the external culture. In contrast, there will be others who will contend that the best way to sustain the Jewish people is to double down on the traditional ways of life and to guard against infiltration by the surrounding cultures.
I favor the first approach. I cannot offer unassailable arguments in favor of this position. I think history is non-committal and answers the question retrospectively. I suspect the approach people is more determined by personal neurochemistry than hard historical evidence. But I have a programmatic suggestion for those who agree with me. In the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to attend two wonderful programs at SAR Academy for my grandchildren. The first was the Navi play performed by my granddaughter’s energetic 4th grade class. The second was an extended morning of learning with my savvy 8th grade grandson. On both occasions, the building was vibrating with visitors of all ages, even noisier than on a regular day. The Navi play was a junior history of the Bible, replete with love of Israel. There were songs, both Jewish and popular, and funny references to the zeitgeist – Uber, cell phones, North Face jackets sushi platters. The stage was filled with children, ranging widely in height and rhythmic sense, but all poised to flawlessly recite their lines in Hebrew. The morning classes were filled with appreciative references to multiple generation families that had attended SAR and the victorious Argentinians. The design of the longest spinning dreidel was the platform to teach basic the fundamental laws of physics and multimedia were used to present life in 164 BCE. I realize it is easier to impress a 68-year-old retiree who has been a fan of SAR from the time his first daughter enrolled there than a jaded 8th grader. But I think all the students can sense that there are very few day schools that create as all-inclusive an environment as SAR
No one has access to a crystal ball or knowledge of the perfect solution to the challenge of Jewish continuity. I am wise enough to acknowledge that it will require multiple strategies, each one geared to the realities of the time and place and people involved. But if you see Judaism thriving best when it embraces the best of the world around us, then the SAR experience is a good model to build on. If you look to the whole world to house your Judaism, then do it enthusiastically and honestly. The parameters and components should expand to match the growing capacity as we mature from adolescence to adulthood and then old age. The guiding principle is to be open to all that is good and meaningful and that can enrich and sustain our Jewish identity. I wrote this the day after Hanukkah is over. But I think the message continues on.