Religion & Beliefs

Hanukkah: It’s Not THAT Bad

Okay, there’s some Hanukkah bashing going on this year, here on Jewcy and over at Slate, and I want to say that first of all, all the points that have been made are totally valid and everything. But despite all … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

Okay, there’s some Hanukkah bashing going on this year, here on Jewcy and over at Slate, and I want to say that first of all, all the points that have been made are totally valid and everything. But despite all that, I think Hanukkah has some redeeming value, and I think it would be a shame to write it off as unimportant or too gory to celebrate.

Most of the controversy surrounding Hanukkah has to do with the war against Atiochus, and how bloody and shortsighted it was. That’s all true. But the holiday of Hanukkah is about the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. The miracle, not the battle, is the part we celebrate and I think that’s something to pay attention to. The rabbis aren’t asking us to glorify senseless violence here, they’re asking us to glorify a miracle. So maybe you don’t believe that the miracle ever happened, or maybe you don’t care, but the miracle itself is not that offensive. And honestly, shouldn’t the concept of a limited amount of oil speak to the contemporary green movement? I mean, this is hardly a stretch. The message of the war against Antiochus is, at its heart, a message of self-esteem for Jews. It may have actually been a horrible and bloody war, but the idea that a small group was able to take down a much larger force is something that has always resonated with Jews. It should be pointed out that all wars are horrible and bloody, and this one probably no more or less than any other war of its time. The goal of the war–Jews standing up for a life of mitzvoth–is a concept that makes absolute sense to me. Do I love the Maccabees’ methods? Of course not, but I think it’s a mistake to impose our pluralistic ideals of today on the Maccabees. There were no models of pluralistic societies at the time (that I know of). And beyond that, they were following the narrative that has been constant throughout the Jewish Experience. Our job has been to ensure that Jews could practice mitzvoth no matter what. That’s what led us to leave Egypt, to settle in Israel, to fight Haman on Purim. Because the thing is, if Jewish mothers will die if they circumcise their sons then Judaism itself is at stake. The commandments are what we’re supposed to be about, and if we can’t do them, then who are we?
Finally, though it pains me to say this, I think part of what’s good about Hanukkah these days is that it has lost most of its historical context. Almost no one reads the book of Maccabees anymore, and it’s certainly not presented to little kids at Hebrew school. Instead, kids learn about miracles, about light, about spinning a dreidl, and eating latkes with their families. They learn about sharing a “holiday season” with other kids celebrating other kinds of festivals, and they learn about giving. One of my favorite things about Hanukkah is that even though there are eight potential days on which to get gifts, I don’t know anyone who gets eight extravagant gifts. Instead, most kids get presents on one or two nights, and spend other nights giving gifts to others, or just hanging out with their family. Because Hanukkah is so overwhelming it ends up being less over the top than many Christmas celebrations. It’s true that the Maccabees were scary guys, and Hanukkah is never going to be my favorite holiday, but it’s not all bad. Celebrating miracles, ensuring that Jews will exist in the world, and lessening consumerism. Let that be your Hanukkah mantra.