Chanukah is the one holiday that is known to practically every Jew. It is also the only holiday that is not mentioned in the Bible.
In the centuries just before the start of the Common Era, the ruling Greek empire pressured the Jews to assimilate into the Hellenistic world. A small group of Jews, truly only a minority, revolted against the Greeks. After several fierce battles, they recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple and cleansed them of the Hellenists’ idols. To this is added one special miracle: While looking for pure, undefiled oil for the Temple lamp, one small vial was found. Although there was enough oil for only one day, it burned miraculously for eight days.
This holiday was created by the rabbis. Chanukah’s only mitzvah is to light candles for eight days. And yet, while this holiday seems to be a relatively unimportant commemoration of certain past victories, it is still considered to be of great importance.
There are those who see Chanukah as the clash between two cultures: the scientific-philosophical Hellenistic world, and Judaism, which revolves around spirituality and holiness.
But in reading the sources closely, we can see that both the Chanukah battles and the holiday have little to do with the classical Greek world. There was little assimilation into the high culture of the Greek world. Rather, this was a practical sort of assimilation — the Jews were becoming just like the other Hellenized populations of the Middle East.
The assimilated Jews of the time did not concern themselves with the clash between Plato and Aristotle and the Holy Torah. What interested them, instead, was the Greek gymnasium, the contemporary sports, the easy, comfortable living with no feeling of duty. Jews adopted all the external markers of contemporary civilization and became simple folk, the Philistines of their time. There may have been some mild pressure exerted on them in order to speed up this process, but much of it happened just due to internal deterioration.
Today’s Jewish assimilation follows similar lines: Jews don’t assimilate because they are influenced by Spinoza, Kant, Feuerbach or Marx. To be assimilated in our time means throwing away any inconvenient residue of Jewish heritage. Today’s assimilation means identifying with a culture that is essentially materialistic and hedonistic: it makes no special demands.
The very essence of Chanukah, then — which is something that we can share with other nations in the world — is the struggle for identity. Chanukah calls out to us that assimilation is not inevitable. We can revolt against this great mass of 50 or 500 shades of grey and create a light that will be individual and meaningful.
The latkes and gifts are just a small way to make people happier; but eating and enjoying them is not enough. At the very least, the Chanukah candles should be lit to remind us that this small light will burn into the future. The candles promise us that we can emerge from the embracing greyness into a happy end.
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.