Time to Take Back Hanukkah

Is Hanukkah a festival or a farce? How many of those who celebrate it appreciate what it's all about? And is it even worth celebrating at all?

Ari Soffer

OpEds Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer

Hanukkah is almost certainly the most widely-celebrated of all the Jewish festivals. No matter what background they are from, regardless of their level of religious observance or their observance of any other festivals, Jews throughout the world take the time to light the hanukkiah (menorah), sing songs and, of course, eat sufganiyot.

One of the reasons for this near-universal embrace of Hanukkah could be that it is probably the easiest of all the festivals to observe. It is simple and enjoyable. The only obligatory halakha (Jewish law) it involves is the lighting of a hanukkiah, which during the long winter nights is not only an easy and inoffensive ritual, but also a rather pleasant one. Gathering around the light of the hanukkiah, singing songs, eating fried foods - who could object to that?

Festival or farce?

But the superficial popularity of Hanukkah is a charade. It is not real. In fact, it is precisely the "ease" with which the day can be (at least on a basic, ritualistic level) commemorated which is its downfall - despite the crucial significance it holds. 

Hanukkah is a festival of unique importance. Together with Purim it is the only major festival which was legislated by the Rabbis in the post-prophesy era (it is of course not mentioned anywhere in the Torah, having taken place during the post-Biblical period).

However, it was not always alone in that way. For Hanukkah is actually one of several rabbically-ordained festivals (as recorded in the "Megillat Ta'anit") which took place during the Second Temple period. And yet, whereas all the others were annulled by the sages following the tragic destruction of the Second Temple and onset of exile in 70CE, Hanukkah remained. Why?

Clearly, unlike the others, its message was seen as eternally revelant - a crystalization of what it means to be a Jew which the exiled descendants of the Maccabees could look towards during the long night of exile.

And yet today - far from being a commemoration of one of the most important events in Jewish history, a beacon of hope and a heroic reminder of a Torah so precious that it is worth fighting and dying for - the observance of Hanukkah has morphed into a tragicomic light show.

Tragicomic, because so many of those who inanely go through the motions of hanukkah emphatically reject all, or most, of what it represents in their daily lives. And a mere light show, because without appreciating its core message that is all it is.

So what does Hanukkah commemorate; what are we celebrating?

On a basic level at least, most Jewish elementary schoolchildren know the answer to that question.

Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of the Maccabean Revolt against Syrian-Greek rule in the Land of Israel. A stunning reminder of how a small but determined band of Jewish rebels dared challenge one of the mightiest powers of their time - and emerged victorious, against all the odds!

And it is not just the victory which we celebrate. Indeed, perhaps the most powerful message of Hanukkah is the more basic fact that so many men and women - our ancestors - were willing to fight and die to preserve authentic Jewish, Torah values, and hand it over intact to us to cherish and teach to our own children.

The lighting of the Hanukkiah commemorates the spiritual crescendo of the victory: when the Jewish rebels liberated the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site, and retook the holy Temple, tearing down the symbols of Greek occupation and symbolically lighting the seven-branch Menorah candelabra. The symbolism cannot be overstated, for the Menorah in the Temple represented the "light of the Torah" - the very values which those brave renegades dared fight for.

According to tradition, the Menorah stayed alight for 8 full days, despite only having enough sanctified oil for one day - a miracle which was seen as a sign of Divine Favor - hence the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah: a celebration of authentic Jewish values

The fact that we celebrate this event surely indicates our embracing of the values which triumphed during those fateful days.

Hanukkah is not just some quaint historical reenactment of a Jewish military victory; and the Maccabean Revolt was not a simple struggle of national liberation - though it was that as well - but rather an ideological struggle between good and evil. By celebrating the Maccabees' victory we are expressing our solidarity with their values, and its triumph over Greek hellenistic values, with all the latter represented (and still represents).

With that in mind, let us return to the Hanukkah tragicomedy.

To the irony - nay, the hilarity - of seeing "Happy Hanukkah" messages and parties and events coordinated by the likes of the New Israel Fund, Peace Now, and other members of the far-left who, apparently, are not acquainted with the main villains of the Hanukkah story [parentheses mine]:

"At that time there appeared in Israel a group of renegade Jews, who incited the people. 'Let us enter into a covenant with the Gentiles round about [!],' they said, 'because disaster upon disaster has overtaken us since we segregated ourselves from them.'

"The people thought this a good argument, and some of them went to the [Greek] king and received authority to introduce non-Jewish laws and customs. They removed their marks of circumcision and repudiated the holy covenant. They intermarried with Gentiles, and abandoned themselves to evil ways." (I Maccabees, 1: 11-15)

And if that isn't awkward enough then please, Yariv Oppenheimer, Naomi Chazan, Tzipi Livni and co., meet the hero of the story: Mattityahu. Mattityahu the "right-wing Zealot" whose first "victim" was a Jewish hellenist who attempted to offer up a pagan sacrifice, and whose rallying cry was "Follow me every one of you who is zealous for the law and strives to maintain the covenant". Whose first act of "price tagging" was to tear down a pagan altar in Modiin which was used as a means of exerting Greek control over the land (Ibid. 15: 15-28). 

Oh yes, and let's not forget his "reckless" son Yehuda (Judah Maccabeus), who stormed the Temple Mount and liberated it for Jewish worship. My God, he risked sparking a Third World War!

Moving beyond the Left, let us cast our eyes towards the sad irony of our right-wing Prime Minister, who voices his support for the thoroughly debunked notion of terrotorial concessions due to international pressure, sending the nation of Israel "Hanukkah greetings". Dear prime minister, please reacquaint yourself with the history which you no doubt learned once upon a time.

Following the death of Yehuda and his brother Yonatan (Jonathan), and after the reconsolidation of Jewish sovereignty under their brother Shimon (Simon), King Antiochus VII sends the following message to Shimon, demanding the "return" of the land "seized" by the Jewish armies from his predecessors:

"You are occupying [!] Joppa and Gazara and the citadel in Jerusalem, cities that belong to my kingdom. You have laid waste their territories, and done great damage to the country, and have made yourselves masters of many places in my kingdom.

"I demand the return of the cities you have captured... Otherwise you must pay five hundred talents of silver on their account, and another five hundred as compensation for the destruction you have caused and for the loss of tribute from these cities [i.e. economic sanctions].

"Failing this, we shall go to war with you."

And how does the Jewish leader Shimon response to this bullying by his far more powerful adversary? Not with fealty but with defiance. 

"We have not occupied other people's land or taken other people's property, but only the inheritance of our ancestors, unjustly seized for a time by our enemies. We have grasped our opportunity and have claimed our patrimony.

"With regards to Joppa and Gazara, which you demand, these towns were doing a great deal of damage among our people and in our land. For these we offer one hundred talents." (I Maccabees, 15: 25-36)

Needless to say "the king was furious", and went to war he did. 

But Shimon paid no heed to threats of violence, nor did he fear the specter of "delegitimization"; for he of all people knew that some things are worth fighting (or being demonized) for. Such as one's homeland. 

And let us not overlook the sad spectacle of those who should know better. The rows of flaming hanukkias in the streets of Meah Shearim and other bastions of the stream of thought which declares that pious Jews must never, ever abandon the halls of study to fight the wars of Israel. Those who seek to preserve their state of isolation from the "impure" masses do not realize how much they resemble one of the most tragic, and foolish, characters of the Hanukkah story.

Those righteous fools who fled to the caves to escape the Hellenistic decrees banning the practice of Torah Judaism, isolating themselves from the rest of their brethren in order to keep the Torah in its purity - but who refused to take up arms and join the revolt out of fear of "breaking the sabbath". Instead, they preferred to be slaughtered like sheep, bleating only that they would "meet death with a clear conscience" and "call heaven and earth to testify that there is no justice in this slaughter" - after which they were, indeed, promptly slaughtered.

Of them the hero of the story and instigator of the rebellion Matityahu the Kohen laments: "If we all do as our brothers have done, if we refuse to fight the Gentiles for our lives as well as for our laws and customs, then they will soon wipe us off the face of the earth." (I Maccabees 2: 29-41)

No doubt the rabbis of the Shas party would have decried Matityahu as an "Amalekite" for suggesting that Jews should enlist into the armed forces rather than remain piously sitting in caves, scrupulously studying and observing the laws of the Torah. Or were Matityahu and his men just a bunch of "hilonim" or "yeshiva dropouts", who wouldn't be learning Torah anyway, and for whom it was therefore acceptable to risk their lives on the battlefield?

Retaking Hanukkah

But such a charade cannot last for ever, and the time has come for intellectual honesty and moral clarity.

For those for whom Jewish values are important, who truly care about preserving the true message of Hanukkah, take the time to expand your knowledge of the events surrounding it beyond elementary school - beyond the whitewashed rump of a "festival of lights" which means all things to all people and therefore has no unique significance (and may as well be abolished in favor of the Christmas it has come to resemble).

For those who do not really care, or for whom such Jewish values are anathema: please, leave our Hanukkah alone. Stop pretending.

No, Hanukkah does not have any particularly sophisticated laws or practices. Yes, it is simple, warm and uncomplicated. But that is merely a reflection of the light of Torah, which the Maccabees rekindled through their blood, tears and fire; through their dogged resistance against the political and cultural imperialists of their time, who claimed the land of Israel as their own and sought to dilute authentic Torah values into something indistinguishable from any other culture or religion, save a few token symbols.

Who handed those values intact to us, to learn, savor, protect - and adhere to.

It is a symbol of the straightforward defiance of the Maccabees - so refreshingly different to the complicated rhetorical and diplomatic somesaults of the confused, weak and fearful politicians of our time.

Let us rediscover those values, and let Hanukkah once more be a banner of authentic Jewish values, pride and, when necessary, a source of strength to defy even the most powerful, numerous and determined of foes.

Let's take back Hanukkah.