Chanukah is one of the most historically documented of all the Jewish holidays – we have early sources for it in the books of the Maccabees, and in the works of Josephus. We have accounts in the Talmud and in other rabbinic literature. Every Jew knows the story – that Antiochus Epiphanes forced all the people under his rule to take up Hellenistic practices, that the worship of Greek gods and the sacrifice of unclean animals replaced the traditional worship in the Temple, that Shabbat and circumcision were outlawed. And while some Jews were eager to take on Hellenism, with its pantheon of gods, and its emphasis on the beauty and strength of the human body, others resisted, and died as martyrs.
Then one day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar there, commanding the Jews to show obedience to Antiochus’ decree. Mattathias an old priest was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to follow the instructions that he killed him, and then he and his 5 sons retreated to the mountains and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies. Before he died Mattathias passed on the leadership to his son Judah, who led the forces against a series of Antiochus’ armies, and defeated them all. When he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the Temple from its defilement, they could only find one small cruse of oil, enough to last just one day, yet when they lit the Temple menorah with it a miracle occurred and the light burned for 8 days. Since then we celebrate Chanukah in order to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for religious independence, and we retell the miracle of the oil, we light the chanukiah and we eat foods cooked with oil.
That is the story, everyone knows it, yet strangely enough in none of the many early accounts we have of Chanukah do we find the story quite like this.
Some accounts focus on the facts of war. Other stories place at their centre the personality of individual members of the Hasmonean family; or the terrible persecution suffered under Antiochus; or the willing assimilation by many which almost wrote the Jews out of history. Other texts talk about cleansing and rededication of the Temple in order for it to be used for Jewish worship once more.
Different aspects of the story of the Maccabean rebellion have been highlighted at different times. So the rabbis living in Mishnaic times may have felt obliged to mute the story of a successful revolt by a small number of Jews against a powerful enemy; and those of Talmudic times may well have needed the extra emphasis on the Temple rededication, and the reassurance of the presence of God in the world that the story of the miracle would bring. The issue of religious martyrdom was important in medieval times when the community was decimated in the crusades – and so on.
The festival of Chanukah has continued to develop and we continue to tell the story in our particular way. Every generation engages with the story, infuses the ritual with contemporary meaning, uses the story and the eight days of candlelighting to express something we feel deeply about. Every generation looks at the story of Chanukah, adding their own light and shadow in order to express that which is important to their time.
A modern response has been to use the festival as an antidote to external cultural influences, to make it, as it were, the Jewish Christmas, with the giving of presents and the eating of rich (and oily) foods. Sadly Chanukah has become a festival our children know more about than the more core biblical ones of Sukkot and Shavuot. I have no problem with raising the status of Chanukah to combat the alienation caused by the feeling that the whole world is having a party to which we are not invited (and nor should we be, or we risk devaluing the importance and particularity of Christmas), but it does worry me that Chanukah has become a sort of catch all festivity during the dark winter months, and all meaning is overshadowed by celebration. For Chanukah does have a message for us, and is not simply a convenient peg to enable us to have our own party, Chanukah is all about – indeed the word has the basic meaning of – dedication and renewal.
If we parallel the original story of Chanukah in which people moved away from the core values of Jewish tradition and its place of expression, in favour of the values of a world which did not give a worth to the imperatives of increasing holiness through ethical and righteous behaviour, then this is the time of year we should be rededicating and renewing our own Jewish identity – going, as it were, into the sanctuary of our own souls and taking stock of where we are three months after the last stock take of Yom Kippur. Do we need to refocus, to relight our desire to be better than we are being, to rededicate ourselves to our partnership in the work of God?
Chanukah, often called “Festival of Lights” is more properly a “Festival of Rights” – celebrating the determined fight of a tiny group of people for the basic human right to religious identity, spiritual autonomy and right to define one’s self.
Mattathias and his sons fought a battle whose principle continues to be fought around the world. And this principle is at the core of the Chanukah story. There continue to be refugees fleeing from their countries – from wars which have nothing to do with them, from persecution over their gender, religion, nationality, sexuality, existence….
The rabbis asked – “if there was only enough oil for one day, and it stayed alight for 8 days while new oil was being prepared, it is easy to understand the miracle of the last 7 days, but what was the miracle on the first day?”
They provide a number of possible answers, but for me the one that resonates is that the miracle of the first day was that people still cared enough and believed enough to light the menorah at all, when they knew that realistically it should go out again within a few hours and they would find themselves in deep darkness again. The miracle of Chanukah isn’t some supernatural extension of the burning properties of oil, but that very ordinary human beings lit the oil in the first place, determined to create light even if only in their own locality, even if only for a short time. It would have been so easy to have not bothered, to have said it would make no difference, to have given up.
Miracles are not really about heavenly interventions or supernatural experiences, but ordinary everyday things which we create and experience every time we choose to dedicate ourselves to the values we say we believe in, when we remind ourselves that we are one human race, when we recognise that what binds us is of more importance than what separates us. Miracles happen when people don’t give in to despair or lethargy, or the belief that they can’t make a difference anyway so they shouldn’t even try.
Chanukah is a festival of dedicating ourselves, of learning about ourselves and what we could be capable of, of reminding ourselves that our actions should match our words. As we light our candles and eat our doughnuts and spin our dreidls, let’s give some thought to how our own lives might provide light – even just a small glow – and make our bit of the world a kinder place.