Getting serious about Chanukah

traditional Hanukah symbol made by using round candy

By Matt Silver

Let’s be real: Chanukah is far from the most theologically significant Jewish holiday on the calendar.

Reasonable minds can differ over whether it counts, strictly speaking, as a holiday at all. Does Chanukah carry the religious or liturgical heft to merit
serious observation (or such cultural significance)? Or is it simply a collection of
biblically inconsequential festival evenings strung together haphazardly like dorm-room Christmas lights. Frivolity, fried foods and Adam Sandler. Bloated electric bills and just plain bloating.

Was Chanukah, which begins at sundown on Dec. 22, always supposed to be like this? Was it ever supposed to be more solemn and sobering in tone, or at least more original — more Jewish and less Jewified Christmas?

“It is good to remember that Chanukah is not a major holiday, but it has caught on because everybody has a winter festival that’s related to light, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating ours,” said Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Congregation Kol Ami near Philadelphia.

“If we’re celebrating Chanukah and not acknowledging other Jewish holidays, then that’s a problem. But if you’re doing Sukkot and Passover and Shavuot and the High Holidays and Shabbat — if you’re doing all of those things and you want to make a big deal out of Chanukah, then that’s fine.”

Ah, but what of that semi-queasy irony — a New York Times op-ed from this time last year went so far as to call it “hypocrisy” — in how most secular American Jews have come to celebrate Chanukah, a holiday born out of resisting assimilation?

Hypocrisy’s probably a bit extreme; many families are trying simply to safely shepherd their children through the minefield of holiday season Christmas envy without suffering righteous admonishment.


“There is a certain irony to how Chanukah is celebrated because if we look at the historical, biblical origins of Chanukah, it’s very much about not assimilating,” Berkowitz said. “It’s this small group of Jews that fought because they didn’t want to assimilate, because they wanted to keep observing Judaism in a strict way. So … that [Chanukah] is the holiday that’s become the Jewish Christmas is the biggest irony.”

The Maccabees fought and killed to avoid being absorbed into the Hellenized world around them. They adhered to a strict interpretation of what it meant to be Jewish and literally would’ve rather died than become the Hellenized Jews they reviled, who ate pork and didn’t circumcise their male children and participated in pagan rituals.

Many see it as just another battle in the age-old war between fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism — conservatives and traditionalists versus the reform-minded. Throw in a megalomaniacal king in Antiochus IV who, by most historical accounts, was far more hostile to observant Jews than his dynastic predecessors, and you’ve got ready-made bellicosity. Just add oil … or take it away.

But perhaps the question shouldn’t be whether the Maccabees would’ve approved of what Chanukah’s become, primarily because the answer is too obvious. Of course, they wouldn’t have. How most American Jews celebrate Chanukah today would’ve terrified Judah and company, and these weren’t men who scared easily.

But so what? So what if how we celebrate their most unlikely victory, and the miracle that followed, isn’t necessarily in keeping with their highest ideals? So what if while our Hebrew school kids sing Mattathias bold, five brave sons had he: Eliezer, Simon, John, Jonathan and Judah Maccabee, we’re out buying and wrapping the latest must-have iteration of PlayStation, attending to our most unseemly consumerist compulsions just like all the other Christmas-celebrating Americans?

According to clergy on both sides of the aisle, Chanukah and Christmas, despite very real differences, both exist to light up the darkness. And the way to make sure that Chanukah has not lost its power to illuminate — literally, spiritually, existentially — is not by abandoning its celebration; it doesn’t even necessitate a cold-turkey approach to the arguably maladjusted Chanukah Frankenstein that we hath wrought.

It’s just by using Chanukah for some good, too. Addition by addition. Keeping the frivolity, keeping the fun, and injecting some meaning, too. Clergy in the know say the power of Chanukah is all in how you use it; you know, motion in the ocean type stuff.

“One thing that I do to bring meaning into the season is I do a tzedakah menorah,” said Berkowitz about a custom born out of family Chanukahs that she’s exported to her synagogue’s religious school. “So every night, I do light a candle. But instead of giving a gift for each candle, I give tzedakah to a certain cause. And I try to pick causes that would be connected to people I’d be giving gifts to.”

But the clerics agree: living your best Chanukah isn’t about extremes. Avoid the baby and bathwater scenario.

“You don’t have to do [your version of the tzedakah menorah] instead of gifts,” Berkowitz said. “Because, while we don’t want to compete with Christmas, we want to make Chanukah as beautiful as any other holiday so that kids have warm memories of it and don’t feel deprived.

“So I wouldn’t say don’t get your kids gifts, I would say while you’re giving gifts, also consider tzedakah and giving your kid the opportunity to give tzedakah and letting them know that that’s a gift also.”

Much of how we live today would probably not have jibed with the ethos guiding the swords of Mattathias the Bold or his five brave sons.

Judah Maccabee, the third and most celebrated son, the legendary general and original Hebrew Hammer, would have found the garden-variety Chanukah bazaar bizarre. He might’ve branded us blasphemers and used that hammer (legend has it that Judah was called “Hammer” not just because of his ferocity in war but also because the hammer was his battle weapon of choice) of his against us in ways our civilized society might find untoward. These were heroes and soldiers and tough men, but they lived in brutal times and were brutal.

Should we stop singing their praises then? The Maccabees weren’t perfect, and neither are we.

Being Jewish doesn’t inoculate us from the American condition and, more broadly, the human one. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for and celebrate the highest of ideals even while, most of the time, falling a good deal short. That’s not hypocrisy. That’s just living.

So give yourself, and your neighbor who overindulges his kids once a year, a break. And give the Maccabees a break, too. Like us (and like our contemporary celebration of Chanukah), they were products of their time and far from perfect, but they were conquering heroes, nevertheless. When we memorialize their exploits in song, we’re not hypocrites; we’re not war mongers, either.

Failing all else, do what a rabbi in search of meaning would do: Look to the Talmud.

Berkowitz tells of an argument, memorialized therein, between the sages Hillel and Shammai over the proper way to light the Chanukah menorah.

“Shammai argued that you should start with eight candles and diminish to one, because that’s what would have happened with the oil,” she said.

“But Hillel argued that you should start with one candle and grow to eight, which is what we do [today] … because ‘in matters of holiness, we increase; we do not decrease.’”

So if you’re looking to add some sanctity to all the secular this Chanukah, perhaps all that’s needed is a new way of looking at lighting the menorah.

Matt Silver is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.

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