Tanya White
Tanya White
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Hanukkah: The battle for our soul

If this holiday becomes just a Jewish Christmas, we will have lost the very message that the Festival of Lights is meant to convey

I have a confession to make. Having grown up in London, it is always at this time of year that I miss the “Christmassy” feel from home. Coming from a religious Orthodox home, we never celebrated Christmas — far from it — but the sound of those heart-warming songs on the radio, the prevalent festive and relaxed mood surrounding us, the pretty lights and decorations, and of course the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day was certainly not lost on me. And though I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying the cultural feel-good factor of another religion’s celebrations, it strikes me as a travesty when religious particularities and traditions take on a glib generality that makes them indistinguishable one from the other.

How much are we to take from other cultures or religions? Is there a moment in our appreciation of the “other” that we lose the sense of our own particularity? When does appreciation become assimilation? Are we to shut ourselves off from the world so as not to become “influenced” by the other, or are we to engage in the world at the risk of sacrificing our own identity and uniqueness? How best can we become a “light unto the nations”?

Hanukkah is perhaps the holiday that should speak to us most profoundly today. At a time when our particularity as a Jewish people is predominantly threatened by three factors — universalism, globalization, and assimilation, Hanukkah comes to remind us of our role as a Jewish people. Its historical and theological underpinnings hold pertinent lessons for this generation.

The tension between universal objective truth and particular tribalistic faith is one whose roots are grounded in Greek philosophy. In fact, Tertullian, the second-century Christian theologian, famously asked the question, “What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?” Implicit in his polemic was the assumption that the relationship between Greek philosophy, as the search for rational universal truth, and revelation, as the faith of the Scriptures, had no shared ground. More than 1800 years later, Leo Strauss, the 20th century Jewish thinker, posed the same question in his celebrated essay, “Athens and Jerusalem,” where he set up Reason and Revelation/Athens and Jerusalem as opposing paradigms. Is this distinction accurate? Does Judaism really represent the opposite of Athens? Are we who are religious all zombies blindly aligning ourselves with an “opium of the masses,” as Marx believed? Does our faith really rest on some irrational folly of mythological revelation, or is there a part of the rational objective universalism that the Greeks and later the Moderns advocated that we can claim as our own? And perhaps most importantly — does it really matter?

The festival of Hanukkah provides an enlightening insight into this dilemma. The Rabbis present two opposing reasons for Hanukkah. The first, found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), states that it was the divine miracle of the flask of oil — the fire from above — that constitutes the basis of our commemoration. The second, from the Al HaNisim prayer, fails to even mention this miracle, citing the battle and dedication of the Temple through human agency — the fire from below — as the essential reason for the celebrations. This tension is highlighted further in two more historical accounts of the event: the Book of the Maccabees[i] and Josephus[ii]. In both of these accounts, there is no mention of the divine miracle of oil, though there is mention of Hanukkah becoming a festival for eight days. It is clear that without the audacity of Judah the Maccabee and the Hasmoneans taking matters into their own hands, the Jewish people might very well have been wiped out.

How can we reconcile these two accounts? How do they help us to understand the essence of Hanukkah, and how does it provide a paradigm that dispels the cursory archetypes of Athens and Jerusalem/Centrality of Man or God?


The role of man here is central to the motif of redemption. Could it be that an element of Greek culture permeated the mindset of the Hasmoneans at the time? For the first time in post-revelation Jewish history, man took the matter of redemption into his own hands. The pietists (Hasidim, if you will) of that period were determined to simply “ignore” the threat of the surrounding Greek culture. They sat in their homes, praying for a miracle, hoping that the great and mighty hand of God would save them in their hour of need — they prayed for redemption from above.

The Hasmoneans, by contrast, recognized the reality of their situation. They understood that redemption had to come from below. If they did not act soon, the rich and unique Jewish culture and religion would disappear forever. Their battle was not just a physical battle, but a spiritual one. They were fighting for religious freedom. They knew that the universal appeal of Greek culture and thought would rapidly sweep away most Jews. And yet they adopted some key principles taught by the Greeks: individualism, autonomy, human strength — these all played a role in the Hasmoneans’ decision to battle the Greek army. The Maccabees realized that the time had come to place man at the center of his own destiny. Waiting for divine redemption was not enough.

Hence, perhaps the Hasmoneans and the story of Hanukkah teaches us something that Tertullian did not understand; Judaism stands between two worlds. It belongs neither solely to “Jerusalem” — the world of mystery and metaphysical truths, nor to “Athens” — the world of pure reason and humanism. It stands as a bridge between the two. Judaism functions through the paradigm of Brit — Covenant. It requires both human reason, logic, and absolute engagement with the reality, but it equally recognizes man’s fallibility in acknowledging the limits of his own absolutism.[iii] Brit is a paradigm that makes space for the battle of man and the miracle of God. It ensures that while fighting, our eyes remained fixed above on the Divine[iv]. It ensures that man does not become a god and that God does not become man, but that each operates in their distinct roles.


When reflecting on this event, the Rabbis of the Talmud understood that the Hasmonean victory could lose its religious significance, concurring instead with the Hellenistic theology of man’s greatness, hence they emphasize the divine miracle, rather than human fiat.

Later sages recognized the unparalleled significance of the battle as the first instance of covenantal redemption, and thus the Al HaNisim prayer emphasizes the human component of the redemption, where man and God, according to their respective jurisdictions, work together to ensure the rectification of the world.

In a world that wants to assimilate the many into the one, the particular into the universal, the national into the global, the Jewish people must be the first to say, “No.” We must teach the world today, more than ever, that pluralism does not mean the loss of our unique culture and religion. Only total religious freedom, and a deep appreciation of our own unique legacy will allow us to appreciate and value that of another. If Hanukkah becomes just a Jewish Christmas, we will have lost the very message it is meant to convey. There is much we can gain from our encounter with the “other,” and we must not be afraid of engaging in the world and learning from others, just as the Hasmoneans seemingly learned from their Greek counterparts. Equally, however, we must ensure that we maintain our individualism and prevent it from getting consumed by the culture of universalism, whose appeal can be quite magnetic. In many ways, the kindling of the Hanukkah lights is reminder of all these ideas. Though our light may be modest, it is ours alone — simple, powerful, and beautiful.


This notion of fire as a divine gift has its origins far earlier than the second century. The very first time we see fire as a man-made asset is in the Torah, during the episode of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The Babel narrative is about the challenge of diversity in a universal culture. The moment that men work together to create something progressive and innovative, is the moment their unique individuality is threatened. Like the Greeks that followed them, they wanted to make a “name” for themselves. They lived in a world where man, not God, was central and to achieve their goals required conformity (one language and one word) — and coercion. In such an intolerant environment, the particular will naturally be engulfed by the universal. God’s response? Scatter the people; change their language; stop innovation at the price of coercion and create diversity.

After this incident Abraham the “Other” — Avraham HaIvri, in the language of the Rabbis — is chosen and almost by means of a tikkun– rectification, God’s promise to Abraham to be a father of many nations (a father of diversity). This is confirmed in the covenant of parts (brit ben habetarim) with fire.[v] Fire represents the essential notion of covenant for there is nothing that stands as a greater paradigm for the man – God relationship. In an early midrashic source (Genesis Rabbah 11:2), the Rabbis imagine the fear Adam felt as he encountered the sun setting for the first time. They depict God uncovering two flints for him which he strikes against each other to produce fire after which he blesses the blessing we recite at the Havdalah ceremony after the Sabbath. God confers on man the capacity to overcome his fears, through innovation, active intelligence and autonomous action. Equally, however, man must recognize that the fire from below, is ultimately a gift from the divine power above. (By contrast the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, whose request to the gods to give humans fire is met with refusal, for fear the human will become too powerful, sets out to remedy the situation himself by stealing fire from the sun to bring to mankind teaching them how to use it. In the legend of Prometheus man is passive, he is simply the recipient of a divine gift. In the midrash, man must use his innovative capacities to create the fire.)

On Hanukkah, we light eight candles. While seven represents nature — the natural, rational, given, eight represents the supernatural — mysterious, metaphysical. Seven is Athens, eight is Jerusalem. But in lighting the candles, we are attributing significance to both these paradigms — both to Jerusalem and Athens. In reading the talmudic discussion and chanting the Al HaNisim prayer, we are recognizing that redemption of this world comes from above and below.

Let’s not forget that Hanukkah only brought about a partial, not total, redemption; the religious freedom granted to the Jews only lasted a short time. Still, we celebrate it every year, throughout the generations. Why? Because Hanukkah represents far more than the marginal historic victory of that time. It celebrates human agency in a divine world and man’s innovative capacity to create everything from fire to meaning in true covenantal style — making space for man and God. It celebrates the uniqueness and richness of our religious legacy and future, and, above all, it celebrates man’s ability to fix a broken reality through the divine covenantal relationship and bring light, fire, and hope to a dispirited world.

[i] The Book of Maccabees 2. 10:3

[ii] Josephus: Antiquities 12:316-325 [7:6-7]

[iii] I adopt this terminology from an article by Rabbi Irving Greenberg discussing the notion of religious pluralism “The Journey to Pluralism” in A Torah Giant: The intellectual Legacy of Rabbi Dr. Irving Greenberg ed. Shmuly Yanklowitz

[iv] This was the message of the first battle fought by the people of Israel against the Amalekians. While they fought on the ground Moshe was stood on the top of the mountain his hands held towards heaven. It was a battle fought through the paradigm of Brit. See Exodus 17

[v] It is fascinating that the text here alludes to darkness falling upon Abraham and the imagery of fire — much like that of the Midrash we will look at below. Here the imagery of fire is linked explicitly to the notion of brit.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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