By Rabbi Howard Alpert
American Jews love Chanukah. Only the Passover seder is more widely celebrated, and no other observance captures the popular Jewish imagination in quite the same way.
While considered a minor holiday in religious terms, Chanukah has been a favorite of children and their parents for nearly two millennia. Despite its popularity, its message has been subjected to interpretation and re-interpretation to such a degree that even the rabbis of the Talmud needed to ask themselves “What is Chanukah?”
The history behind Chanukah is straightforward.
Early in the Second century BCE, Antiochus, king of the Syrian branch of the Alexandrian empire, and his allies among the Hellenized Jews in Israel began to impose Greek culture and religious practice on the Jews of Israel. They dedicated the Jerusalem Temple to the Greek god Zeus and banned major Jewish observances such as Shabbat, Kashruth and circumcision.
Jewish traditionalists, led by the family of the High Priest Mattityahu the Hashmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, revolted against the Syrian forces and led a civil war against the Hellenized Jews. The traditionalists fought against greater numbers and superior forces; nonetheless, they were victorious. They cleansed the temple, dedicated the nation of Israel to the worship of God, and declared an eight-day festival to celebrate the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.
For the 200 years that followed the first Chanukah celebration, Jewish sources trumpeted the military victory that had led to it, the re-emergence of Jewish sovereignty in the land of the Jews that accompanied that victory, and the rededication of both temple and nation to the service of God.
It is only after the destruction of the temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty that the sources begin to tell of the now-familiar miracle of the oil, in which a single flask of oil sufficient for one day’s burning lasted eight days until a new supply of oil fit for use in the temple could be produced.
While the Talmudic sources that were the first to connect the story of the oil to Chanukah don’t explain why they chose to move away from earlier explanations for the festival, the transition may not be difficult to understand.
With the destruction of the temple, the loss of Jewish sovereignty and the growing dispersion of the Jewish nation, the earlier significance given to Chanukah had lost its relevance. The miracle of the oil, however, could be understood symbolically as representing God’s assurance that the light of the Jewish nation, no matter how few they might be or how embattled they might become, would be sustained until they could re-emerge as a free and sovereign people, able to practice their Judaism in their own land.
Whatever its intended message, the telling of the “miracle of the oil” delighted and inspired Jews for nearly 2,000 years.
With the beginning of modern times, however, circumstances — at least for Jews living in Western Europe and the Americas — began to change, and with the change came the need for a new understanding of Chanukah. The emergence of humanism and the beginning of the period of emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries gave Jewish communities the hope that they would finally have a place of respect in Western society.
For many Western Jews, the dream of renewed sovereignty in a faraway land was less compelling than the thought of being accepted as respected, contributing members of a modern society. Chanukah became significant for its promise of the freedom to live and practice openly as a Jewish community and for the underlying value of religious freedom that was projected onto the Chanukah story.
By the middle of the 20th century, all streams of American Judaism had embraced the modern reading of the Chanukah story. This reading is a departure from earlier explanations for the festival that stressed God’s role in protecting the Jewish nation and its religious practices.
Nonetheless, it contains the kernel of an idea that runs through all previous explanations: Chanukah is a celebration of the collective way of life of the Jewish people. As Harry Gersh, noted Reform Jewish educator, wrote in his introduction to a 1971 school curriculum, “The battle of the Maccabees was a battle for collective religious freedom but not for individual freedom of conscience as such.”
This idea is being challenged by a 21st century interpretation of Chanukah that champions the personal Jewish experience over the experience of Judaism as part of a Jewish community. As explained in A Hanukkah Blessing to Honor The Dignity and Worth of Every Person written for Keshet (a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life), the Chanukah practice of lighting a lamp for each member of the family “reminds us that the light increases with the opportunity for each of us to celebrate our own Chanukah.”
Whether the refocusing of Chanukah on the experience of the individual rather than on that of the community will capture the imagination of 21st century Jews to the degree that earlier interpretations captured the imaginations of their generation remains to be seen.
Rabbi Howard Alpert is immediate past co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and a retired Hillel rabbi. The board is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.