B. Shira Levine
Navigating new wilderness

Nationalism’s deceptive glow

Happy last night of Hanukkah!  Hope I’m not about to ruin it for you!

This year I’ve been listening to “A Maccabeats Hanukkah” over and over again on all my car drives (that’s over an hour on most weekdays, if anyone’s counting).  I’m not sure why, perhaps because the other Hanukkah playlist my kids like involves Barney’s “I have a little dreidel.  On the hundredth+ iteration of “Light One Candle,” my thoughts drift to reimagine the lyrics in the voices of today’s religious right, who speak consistently in the language of persecution and “religious liberty.”

For all modern Jewish focus on metaphorical miracles, inner lights, and self-purification, Hanukkah is a nationalistic holiday.  Its primary purpose is to celebrate our bloody triumph over forces that sought to deny us the right to live as Jews.

And it’s pretty easy for the modern-day religious right to coopt that narrative.

The paragraph following “Al Hanisim” in the Amidah, revisited (with my admittedly condescending editorialization):

When the wicked government rose up against [religious people] to make them forget [that abortion is murder and that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married and that the acknowledgement and tolerance of any other holidays around Christmas are threats on Jesus]. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights [to refuse to bake cakes for gay people], and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of [self-dubbed God-fearing people].

There is much beauty and truth in Hanukkah–but we must acknowledge the pitfalls in Hanukkah’s abstraction. Humans just love an underdog story about overcoming persecution; nations rewrite their own histories to fit this mold. Nationalists capitalize on the tantalizing fantasy of victimhood to fan the flames of righteous indignation in the masses.  Religion erects an insurmountable barrier whereby any objection to nationalist sentiment is easily refuted “because God.”  Predictable result: war.

Our Torah acknowledges this danger, admonishing us to respect the ease with which anyone can claim the mantle of Israel and God’s will.  In the starkest of terms, it warns us of the temptations false prophets and idolatry present.

With this perspective, let us look at the Maccabee history clear-eyed.  The Maccabees fought not only against the Greeks, but against Jews who sought to reform what they perceived to be an anachronistic belief system.  The Maccabees’ goal was to protect their right to observe their own traditions, yes; but they also fought to insist that other Jews conform to their interpretations.  And once they prevailed, what did they do?  They recognized the need for pragmatism.  They abandoned zealotry for diplomacy, embracing various aspects of the Hellenism they had previously decried in the name of diplomacy

This Hanukkah, we face a new war.  In it, social media bombards us with constant propaganda, and the most blatantly immoral of false prophets abuse religion in the name of their own power.  In this war, pure truth lies paralyzed under a mountain of rubble, a Temple defiled.

Unearthing this truth–or even recognizing that we must–would be a Hanukkah miracle indeed.

From Light one Candle –

We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!

And of all places, my Hanukkah hope comes from Alabama this year.

Chag sameach!

About the Author
B. Shira Levine writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.