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Hanukah hopes for Iran’s Brave Women

When Jews celebrate Hanukah (December 18-25), in 2022 I hope that both Jews and Muslims will also remember all oppressed religious communities, such as the Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province, and the bold women of Iran who risk their lives daily protesting the Iranian government’s persecutions; because Hanukah teaches the very important lesson that faith and hope in the long run overcome nasty politics and politicians.

Hanukah should be a special festival for Muslims and Jews because Hanukah (Hebrew for Dedication) refers both to: The rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV; and the dedication and valor of all those who joined in the resistance to the attempt by the political ruling powers to force the Jews to abandon their God given religion, and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture. Abandoning circumcision was one example.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes: Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; …when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly regained their freedom of worship, and they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival for eight days. on account of the restoration of their temple worship. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. (Antiquities of the Jews 12.7.323-326 )

An alternate rabbinic tradition that clearly shows how the military victory was transformed into a spiritual victory appears in chapter two of Pesikta de-Rabbati., which states that upon reclaiming the Temple, the Maccabees found eight spears [carrying Syrian battalion banners] and lit [the Syrian army banners] on these spears, which explains the tradition to light a menorah for eight nights. Note that in the blessing for kindling the Hanukah wonder lights, ’sheh ahsah nisim’, there is no mention of the oil.

Following Biblical tradition [the First and Second Temple were both dedicated on Sukkot [I Kings 8:2 and Ezra 3:4] the rededication of the now purified Temple was [the First and Second Temple were both dedicated on Sukkot (I Kings 8:2 and Ezra 3:4)

The most popular synagogue hymn/song sung during Hanukah is Ma’oz Tzur, which recalls the rededication of the Temple only obliquely. Ma’oz Tzur is not just a song poem about Hanukah. It is a poem about major calamities and triumphs throughout Jewish history, prompted by the remembrance of Hanukah. Singing it, Jews are transported from Egypt to Babylon to Persia, and finally to Jerusalem.

Ma’oz Tzur was written in the thirteenth-century after violence from multiple waves of Crusades had massacred Jewish life in the Rhineland Valley causing major loss of life, and the destruction of Jewish homes and institutions. Another poem by David bar Meshullam of Speyer the Jewish community is imagined, collectively, as Abraham’s son on the alter only no angel comes to stay Abraham’s hand.

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity and the terrible persecution of Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Mecca.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that long ago filled believers with hope and trust in God and lasted longer than anyone thought possible: “Light upon light”. “He is the One Who sends to His servant manifest signs that He may lead you from the depths of Darkness into the Light and verily Allah is to you most kind and Merciful.” (Qur’an 57:9)

The weekly cycle of reading of the Torah always places the Joseph story always on or around Hanukah, a holiday that asks us to wrestle with questions of identity, assimilation, and belonging.

We live in a cultural context that is overly infatuated, I believe, with the dream of self-sufficiency. Perhaps in this season of darkness, the dreams and shadows of Joseph’s story can help illuminate other parts of ourselves, and shine a light on the complicated dance between longing and belonging in our own lives. In the words of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

But the greatest desire of all
Is to be in the dream of another
To feel a light pull, like reins,
To Feel a heavy pull, like chains.

Hanukkah commemorates a successful revolt of the Jews in Judea against the regime of Antiochus IV, the ruler of Seleucid Syria. Antiochus ruled one of the kingdoms that succeeded the empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered Judea in 322 BCE. This was a Greek-speaking Hellenistic kingdom that promoted Greek culture and the worship of pagan gods.

More importantly, there were many Hellenized Jews, including the high priests Jason and Menelaus, who were in open conflict with traditionalist Jewish factions that rejected Hellenistic influences.

In the context of this intra-Jewish conflict, Antiochus IV initiated a vicious campaign of repression, banning the study of Torah and forcing Jews to worship pagan gods. This repression provoked a revolt among the Jewish population. Under the leadership of the Hasmoneans, the traditionalist factions were able to capture and rededicate the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in 165 BCE, purging it of the pagan worship. The theme of the Hanukkah story therefore is resistance to overwhelming pressure to conform to a dominant culture.

Hanukkah is a rejection of syncretism, the merging and mixing of cultures that usually results in the majority culture obliterating the minority culture. In the U.S., we usually talk of the mixing of cultures as a positive development, as something that enriches our nation.

For the majority culture, that might be true. But for most minorities, American acceptance has proved to be a potent solvent that dissipates and eventually destroys ethnic identity and religious commitment.

Hanukah tell us that both challenges must be overcome by all kinds of minorities.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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