Mai Hanukkah? What is Its Message for us?
From a traditional perspective, grounded in and informed by traditional texts, Hanukkah is not really a holiday at all: it is not a yom tov in any halakhic sense. In the classical halakhic sources, it occupies a distinctly minor role—not as a yomtov per se, but as a day on which one is obligated to perform certain mitzvot—uniquely, lighting candles in the evening, preferably in a prominent, visible place; and reciting “Hallel and Hoda’ah”—i.e., reciting the Hallel each day, and adding the Al hanissm paragraph, containing words of praise of God related to the occasion, to the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. Under this rubric one might add the widespread custom of singing the hymn Maoz Tzur, which presents a panoramic picture of salvific events throughout Jewish history.
Put quite simply, Hanukkah is the least demanding of all Jewish “holidays.” The ritual of lighting candles in the evening is far less demanding in terms of both time and money than the mitzvot of Pesah, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, or even Purim. In fact, nowhere in traditional sources is Hanukkah referred to as a festival, a hag or yomtov; the traditional greeting among Orthodox Jews for these days is A gutt’n Hanukkah, “a good Hanukkah.” Nevertheless, today it is universally referred to as a holiday: here in Israel, people greet one another with the words Hanukkah Sameah and it is referred to as Hag ha-Hanukkah. Moreover, notwithstanding the gastronomic popularity of latkes or other Hanukkah delicacies, Hanukkah is the only special day in the Jewish calendar for which there is no obligation to celebrate by eating a festive meal.
Nevertheless, statistics show that Hanukkah is the most popular, widely observed holiday among American Jews. The questions is: Why? Many would argue that it is so for the wrong reasons. A major part of its popularity is its proximity in time to Christmas (this year, for example, the last day falls on Christmas Eve). The idea, which developed during the years following the Second World War, was that American Jewish children felt “cheated” because they didn’t have a major, child-centered holiday in mid-winter, and that they could feel compensated by Hanukkah. Some Jews have tried to “outdo” the Christian holiday by turning Hanukkah into a kind of of “Jewish Christmas,” giving their children gifts each of the eight nights, rather than only once as is customary on Christmas. In recent years, some people, in a spirit of ecumenism, have coined the term “Chrismukkah” to denote this holiday season, as a kind of mélange of the two (an elegant solution for intermarried families).
In any event, for many Hanukkah has become a time for family gatherings; for eating traditional Hanukkah foods, such as potato latkes and sufganiot, the jelly doughnuts which signal the occasion in Israel. And, as mentioned, there are gifts, and games (dreidl, and in some circles card games and other forms of gambling—traditions that go back to Eastern Europe), and in general it is seen largely as a holiday for children. Indeed, two Jerusalem educators of my acquaintance, colleagues / cohorts, Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, have compiled a big, thick book, A Different Light (New York—Jerusalem: Devorah Publishing & Hartman Institute, 2000), intended to harness the popularity of the holiday as an educational opportunity to make it more meaningful to American Jews.
It is also treated as major holiday in Israel, for different reasons. Schools are closed for most of the eight days, and there is much to-do on the media and of course by advertisers, but the emphasis is on the military victory, the Maccabees being seen as a kind of forebears of IDF—the “Tough Jew” who fights for his survival and for Jewsh sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael—again, a very different message than that of the religious tradition.
Earlier this week I read an op-ed piece in an issue of this week’s ha-Aretz protesting the celebration and teaching of Hanukkah in all lsraeli schools, even the most secular, as “celebrating the victory of a fanatic religious ideology over the acceptance of Greek universal cultures“—which, to his lights, “we”—i.e., liberal secular Israelis, ought to accept. What follows is, among other things, an attempt to respond to that objection.
So we return to the question of the Talmud: Mai Hanukkah? What, in fact, is Hanukkah all about? Beyond the proximity to Christmas which has led to its popularity among certain kinds of American Jews, it seems to me that we may start with its central symbol: the lighting of candles. Candles, or light generally, may be seen as emblematic of a core Jewish idea. Light serves almost universally as a symbol for Wisdom, for the intellect, for clarity of understanding, for clear-eyed perception of the meaning of human life and the role of humankind in the world. And, for the Jew, this is inextricably tied to Torah, to a certain religious mission and God-centered understanding of the meaning of life. And, indeed, the central event of Hanukkah—the Maccabean revolt—was essentially a religious struggle, an act of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of Hellenism, to the pressures placed on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael at that time (2nd century BCE) to assimilate or acculturate to the dominant Hellenistic culture, with its pagan adulation of the emperor and its worship of the body.
Perhaps, one might say, this can be the quintessential message of Hanukkah for American (and other Westernized) Jews. Even the most hyper-assimilated American Jew, who does little more than light Hanukkah candles, is demonstrating a certain minimal fealty to his ancestral tradition, and a certain desire, however tenuous, to enable it to survive. Hanukkah symbolizes a kind of stubborn Jewish resistance to an all-embracing Western culture. At one time, perhaps even as recently as my own early-post-War childhood, the issue might have been one of resisting Christian hegemony; today, the problem is dealing with the overwhelming hegemony of a secular, hedonistic, materialistic culture, which focuses on the individual and the satisfaction of his own pleasures (with the help of an omnipresent consumer culture) as the greatest good. It is in many ways a cheap and tawdry, anti-humanistic culture: today, for every earnest, morally upstanding, and thoughtful secular humanist (and there are such, whom I admire), there are a score of cheap hucksters.