Hanukkah: A Celebration of Jewish Fundamentalism and Militarism?

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Michael David Lukas, a novelist, entitled, “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.” He argued that the story of Hanukkah is, in its essence, “an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.” It is a holiday that commemorates an ancient battle of fundamentalists against assimilationists. He argued that the Maccabees were fundamentalists and they didn’t only fight against non-Jews, but they also fought against Hellenized Jews, essentially assimilated Jews. He wondered why he, an assimilated Jew, should celebrate Hanukkah. He concluded that he celebrates Hanukkah so that his children won’t feel left out by not celebrating a festive holiday at this time of year “because at the end of the day, it’s all about beating Santa.”

Mr. Lukas’ discomfort with Hanukkah is not a new phenomenon. In “ Hanukkah in America: A History,” Dianne Ashton, Professor of Religion at Rowan University, wrote that many American Jews are also uncomfortable with Hanukkah because of the focus on the triumph of the Jewish military. They argue that we shouldn’t be celebrating a Jewish military conquest.

Is that how we should view the holiday of Hanukkah? A holiday of fundamentalists versus assimilationists? A holiday celebrating Jewish militarism? Is the only thing that assimilated Jews have to look forward to on this holiday is beating Santa? Is there really nothing about Hanukkah that I can view with pride unless I’m fundamentalist or a Jewish military hawk?

First, it’s important to note that the intra-Jewish battles of today are different than the intra-Jewish battles during the Hanukkah story. Today in America, different Jewish denominations are fighting for the soul of the Jew, but nobody is trying to outlaw Jewish practice in its entirety. However, the Hellenizers during the Hanukkah story had no tolerance for any Jewish practice whatsoever and those fighting the Hellenizers weren’t fundamentalists. They were simply fighting for Jewish survival, for the right to practice their religion. That’s hardly fundamentalism. That’s a First Amendment right!

Additionally, it is true that we celebrate the military victory on Hanukkah, but we don’t celebrate Jewish might on Hanukkah. After all, the Rambam begins his discussion of the laws of Hanukkah describing the Jewish military victory over the Greeks, but he ends the discussion with the following halacha:

היה לפניו נר ביתו ונר חנוכה …נר ביתו קודם משום שלום ביתו

If a [poor] person must choose between Sabbath lights and Hanukkah lights,… the lighting of his home takes priority, so as to sustain peace in the house.

And the very last line in the Rambam’s halachic discussion of the laws of Hanukkah is:

גדול השלום שכל התורה ניתנה לעשות שלום בעולם שנאמר דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום

Great is peace, since the entire Torah has been given to create peace in the world, as it is written: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

Hanukkah is not about fundamentalism and it is not about Jewish militarism. It is about Jewish pride and a willingness to fight for our values when our very existence is at stake. Ultimately, though, we don’t celebrate Jewish might. We would rather not need a Jewish army. We would rather just serve God in peace. And that is something that all Jews can celebrate.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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