What is Chanukah?
The rabbis of the Talmud famously ask (Sabbath 21b), “What is Chanukah?” As we celebrate this week and next, I thought it worth suggesting eight possible understandings of what Chanukah is, and the important questions that each one begs us to explore further:
1. What is Chanukah? If Chanukah is a celebration of a military victory over the Greeks, how do we understand the idea of military victory today? Is there such a thing? Are we proud of or even comfortable with possessing military strength, and are we clear about how to use military superiority when we have it?
2. What is Chanukah? If Chanukah is a celebration of the miracle of oil lasting longer than it should have, how do we understand the idea of miracles today? With our skepticism and rationalism, have we overlooked life’s miracles, large and small? How do we understand the role of human agency in miracles, considering the human role in the miracle of Chanukah?
3. If Chanukah is about the need for ritually pure oil, how do we understand our own standards today for ritual practice? Do we strive for purity or integrity of thought and action?
4. What is Chanukah? If Chanukah is a celebration inspired by people who had such strong Jewish identities that they rejected Hellenism, how do we understand the balance we strike in our lives between our Jewish identity and membership in a larger community? What is uniquely Jewish about us that distinguishes and guides us – and perhaps even separates us – from other people and religions?
5. If Chanukah is about proudly displaying the candles we light in an act of “pirsumei nisa – publicizing the miracle,” how comfortable are we being proud of our Jewishness in public? Are there situations where others make us less comfortable with such pride, or are there situations where we ourselves, internally, feel less than proud of our Jewishness?
6. What is Chanukah? If Chanukah is a celebration of the few defeating the many, how do we understand minority rights and minority voices today? Are there genuine relationships and conversations happening between majority and minority populations, or is it a competition in which all too often we think in terms of winners and losers?
7. And if, as we are taught, Chanukah celebrates events that required dedication and sacrifice by men and women, and benefited both, how do we understand gender roles today? How do we even understand gender? Have we progressed with regard to shared goals for equal opportunity for, and recognition of, all?
8. Finally, if Chanukah celebrates our reclamation of sovereignty over Israel, how do we understand always reading the story of Joseph on Shabbat at this time of year, he who rose to second in command in Egypt and actually brought us there as a people for what ended up being hundreds of years?
I wish everyone a meaningful – and festive! – Chanukah.