Chanukah – It’s Complicated

sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, December 17, 2017



Tonight Jews all over the world will light six candles on the chanukiah, the eight-branched-plus-one menorah that is lighted through the eight days of Chanukah. Each night of Chanukah one more candle is lighted until, on the last night, all eight candles are lighted, plus the shamash, the helper candle from which all the other candles are lighted. Chanukah has become part of the American December holiday landscape so much so that many people who do not know its story mistakenly think of it as the Jewish Christmas. In addition to the mitzvah (the religious commandment) to light the Chanukah lights, Chanukah offers latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts), dreidls (spinning tops), gelt (gold-foil covered chocolate coins), and gifts for the children on what comedian Adam Sandler called “eight crazy nights.”


It is also a time that some Jewish families find complicated as their Christian neighbors are getting ready to celebrate Christmas, with all its decorations and highly marketed gifts, its public traditions of events, music, television specials and theatrical programs. Non-Jewish kids have a Christmas tree, so Jewish families have had todecide whether calling it a Chanukah bush and using Jewish symbols for decorations is too great a move toward assimilation or is okay for them. Will they buy the Mensch on the Bench as a convenient substitute for the Elf on the Shelf? And what about Santa? Some of the best department store Santas have been Jews. And yet, proverbially “everyone” knows that Santa comes for Christian children and families that have assimilated to the mainstream culture. Is someone like Saturday Night Live’s skits featuring Hanukkah Harry back in the 1980s a viable option? A Jewish enough option? Many families raising their children as Jews have one parent who is not a Jew while other families raising their children as non-Jews have one parent who is a Jew. So those families have to negotiate how much of each tradition will be expressed in the home. For some families their solutions come with minimal conflict while others struggle to find an approach that all can accept. And grandparents and aunts and uncles can either smooth the compromises or keep them always a little uncomfortable.


On top of it all, observant Jews know that Chanukah is “really” a minor holiday while its growing treatment in America suggests it is more important than it actually is, at least from a religious perspective. So even before you get to the complicated feelings around holidays that a great many of us have regardless of heritage because families and traditions are inherently complicated things, Chanukah is already complicated.


It’s always been complicated. In the late First Century BCE and early First Century CE in Roman-dominated Israel, there were two great Jewish sages whose friendly arguments quite often ended with them taking opposite positions on religious matters. Jewish tradition tells us that both Shammai and Hillel were right in their arguments. Any argument among sages must be understood as a competition of right answers, not a right answer versus a wrong answer.


Among the arguments of these two great sages, was an argument about the Chanukah lights. It was somewhere around 140 years since the events that Chanukah commemorates, plenty of time for traditions to develop, but clearly not long enough for them to be codified permanently. Shammai said that on the first night of Chanukah all eight lights should be lighted and then one fewer each successive night. Hillel said that on the first night of Chanukah one light should be lighted and then one additional light added each successive night of the eight-day holiday. Other sages had other variations: one light in the household was sufficient; or one light per member of the household was required. Hillel’s argument is the one that was accepted as the proper practice, but Shammai and the other sages were not wrong.


But for all the discussion of learned people about how to observe Chanukah, their discussions recorded in the Talmud, the voluminous discussions of early rabbis over a few hundreds of years, begin with the question, “Mai Chanukah?” What is Chanukah? Not “How do we light the Chanukah lights?” but “What is this holiday?” As the rabbis in the Talmud take up the question, they are sifting between tellings of a story in a shifting world. What is the story they wanted to retell to make the holiday worthy of being a holiday even though neither it nor the events it commemorates were included in the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures.


The best sources for rousing old stories about the holiday are in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles and in the section called Apocrypha in some Protestant Christian Bibles: the books of First and Second Maccabees and the associated book of Judith. First Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew by a Jewish writer who lived at the time of the events described. Second Maccabees was written originally in Greek at a later time and includes theological ideas found nowhere in the Tanakh but which had entered into First-Century Jewish discourse. The main topic was the military revolt of a group of Jews against the oppressive reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus and his cruel repression of all Jewish religious and cultural practice. Antiochus and his deputies took over the Temple in Jerusalem, put up a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies, looted the golden temple vessels, sacrificed pigs in the Temple, pigs being unclean animals in Jewish law. They forbade essential religious practices, such as male circumcision. And they set up a gymnasium in Jerusalem, where the Greek practice of male athletes competing naked made it impossible to hide one’s circumcision. The gymnasium was the golf course of its era. If you wanted to get ahead in society, you would spend time at the gymnasium. And so Jews who wanted to get ahead assimilated. Maybe religious tradition was not so important to them. Maybe they were pragmatic. But the world had changed. The Greek Seleucids ruled. You had to live in the world that existed. The first casualties of the armed revolt against this oppression were Jews who were going about their business as members of a society ruled by Greek rulers. First Maccabees tells the story of battle after battle and gives unbelievably high casualty rates. Suffice it to say, it was a bloody war wages against both the oppressor and those who were trying to get by in a changed world. When the Maccabee revolutionaries took the Temple, they cleansed and repaired it, celebrated its rededication for eight days, and then declared that every year the rededication would be celebrated for the eight days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, which is the first day of Chanukah to this day.


The heroes of the story are the Maccabees: Mattathias and his sons led by Judah Maccabee, the military leaders of the revolution that overthrew the Greek king; Hannah and her seven sons whom she raised to be martyrs for the cause of freedom from the Greeks; and Judith, who shamed the men into action by using her feminine wiles to get to a general, ply him with cheese and wine, and then kill him while he slept. But these are not the stories the rabbis retold when they answered the question, Mai Chanukah? Where the apocryphal stories celebrated the victors, the restorers of religious purity, the establishers of a new dynasty of Jewish kings not descended from David, the rabbis, a few hundred years later told the story of the temple menorah. When the Maccabees took back the temple and cleansed it, they found only enough clean olive oil to fuel the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand, for one day. But then a miracle happened. The oil lasted for eight days, long enough for them to get new oil. It was, in the grand scheme of things and in the history of telling miracle stories, not a very big miracle. The story was late appearing. It simply wasn’t part of the telling in the first few hundred years after the rededication took place.


Yes. The rabbis made it up and then made it central. But why? We might be tempted today to see it as a way around dealing with the civil war that was part of the revolt against the Seleucid Greek king. Today, the idea of Jew killing Jew bothers a lot of us about the story. But for the rabbis of the early first millennium CE, the more problematic aspect of the story of the Maccabees was the fact that the Hasmonean dynasty that their revolt established resulted very quickly in corruption. A few quick generations, and the descendents of the saviors of the people were its corrupt rulers, quickly trading their freedom from the Seleucid kings for the “protection” of the Roman Republic, which was becoming The Empire as everyone watched. The Romans totally destroyed the Temple in 70 CE forcing the rabbis to reinvent Judaism for an age where temple sacrifice and the duties of the priests were rendered impossible. The Maccabees and Judith had made it into the Septuagint, the Greek-language version of the Jewish scriptures that were in wide circulation in Jewish communities outside of Israel, but did not make it into the final cut of the Hebrew scriptures.


Other than lighting the chanukiah lights on eight consecutive nights, no other Chanukah customs come from ancient times. In fact, potato latkes became normative for Eastern European Jews only since the mid-1800s. Indeed, potatoes and the chocolate for foil-covered coins depended on trade with the Americas to change the food landscape of Europe. Jelly donuts came from the British when they controlled Palestine after World War I. Despite many stories of Jewish children and youth praying dreidl at the time the Seleucids or Roman domination of Israel, they too are latecomers to the Chanukah game, being adopted from a German game in the 17 or 1800s. And even candles were not substituted for the original oil lamps until the 1700s. Holidays in any culture change over time. Traditions grow or die depending on need or resources. And the story of the Maccabees that was deemphasized by the rabbis of the Talmud gained new emphasis when Zionist settlers moved to Israel in the late 1800s and through the period of Jewish Independence and recognition by the United Nations as a nation in 1948. Once again having a state which had real and potential enemies made the Maccabees loom larger than rabbis in the diaspora would have thought necessary.


Chanukah is a living tradition. For Jews today as when Judah Maccabee founded the holiday in 165 BCE, the question at the center of the celebration is survival of a people and how helpful or unhelpful assimilation can be to that survival. It is not a holiday about religious freedom really, though that is one helpful way to cast it today. It is a holiday whose history tells us that unforeseen consequences can undo the very best of intentions. The Seleucid Greek kings were overthrown and the Temple restored and rededicated, but the processes that had brought that about led directly to the corruption of leadership, the destruction of the temple, and then creation of new ways to be Jewish a couple of centuries later. The Hasmonean dynasty did not work. The coming of a messiah of the more ancient line of David became part of the sustaining hope of Judaism through the millennia.


And the candles? The provision of this little miracle that the rabbis thought to tell centuries later spoke to the hope that does not depend on a realistic look at the hard facts. And that is the through line holding together all the pieces that don’t fit. The Maccabees did not look for a big miracle to rid them of oppression of a superior foe. They took action. They didn’t let the absence of enough oil stop them from lighting the Temple menorah. They took action and trusted that somehow, what they started could be completed. The Chanukah story is complicated, the successes limited, but the miracles of Chanukkah are the miracles of people acting to be the people they can be without any promise that their plan would work. That is the essence of what is necessary to change the world. That is the Chanukah miracle I will reflect on tonight as I light six candles on my chanukiah.


Amen and Blessed Be.


© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley