Of all our traditions, festivals and holidays, Hanukkah is the most free-wheeling. It has no stringent work prohibitions, no mandated or forbidden foods, no overturning of spaces.
Its story is not codified into our sacred writ, so no special scriptural recitations attach to the telling of its origins. Even the one required ritual act – lighting the hanukkiah – is remarkably free of the kind of the obsessive-compulsive parameters that shape many of our rituals. A few strictures about material, duration, direction and placement and you’re good to go.
Still, we are a story-telling people. We look to memory and tradition to understand who we are and what we value. Even if it did not make it into the Tanakh, narrative sources about the origins of our winter holiday abound.
The Talmud recounts the Jews’ triumph over their Greek rulers (or Hellenistic Seleucid Syrians, to be precise), emphasizing the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the Second Temple. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recounts the battles of Judas Maccabeus and the subsequent celebration. And the Catholic Bible includes the two books of Maccabees.
How we tell the story of Hanukkah – what we highlight, what we omit – situates us as Jews and as moderns. Early secular Zionists, for example, embraced the holiday. They related to its celebration of Jewish sovereignty, taking inspiration from the account of a small group of determined fighters overcoming larger and mightier forces. The freedom to live their Jewish destiny without the domination of other cultures spoke deeply to them.
When American Jews recount the origins of Hanukkah, they emphasize the prohibition of Jewish practices and the desecration of a sacred space – and the victorious battle that threw off religious oppression. Told in this way, the story of Hanukkah resonates with the foundational American narrative: the New World nation that guarantees religious freedom for all.
In its North American telling, the holiday retains its particular, Jewish meaning, linking our people’s historical hardships as a religious minority and affirming the benefit of modern democracy. At the same time, Hanukkah offers a universal message of tolerance and diversity, and the ability of minority cultures to carry on their heritage.
Both of these ways of narrating Hanukkah focus on the relationship between Jews and others. Another way of telling the story focuses on a conflict not so much with outsiders, but between different kinds of Jews. The problem with living under foreign rule was not only that Jewish practices were denigrated, but that the very culture of our oppressors was seductive.
Jews adopted Hellenistic practices, and did so with enthusiasm. This way of shaping the story of Hanukkah turns it into a cautionary tale about the perils of assimilation. Give way to non-Jewish cultures – dress like them, eat like them, adopt their ideologies – and soon you’ll be slaughtering pigs in the service of Zeus. In places like Canada and the United States, where Jews can be and do whatever they want, this version of Hanukkah connotes the importance of separateness and the perils of universalism.
I was raised on an amalgam of all these Hanukkah narratives, without sensing the political implications of each of them, or the tensions among them. Today, I’m least comfortable with the third narrative – the story of Hanukkah as an anti-Hellenization screed.
I think of myself as both deeply Jewish and thoroughly Hellenized – or whatever the modern version of Hellenized might be. Most contemporary Jews are – whether secular or religious, Israeli or Diasporic. However immersed we are in Jewish learning and practice, our Judaism is a product of a long journey through other cultures.
Unlike most of our holidays, our tradition de-emphasizes the story of Hanukkah in favour of our ritual re-enactment of the miracle: a soft glow to light up the darkest season and remind us of the wondrous.