By Rabbi Mark S. Glickman
(Calgary) – I am a religious Jew. I feel passionately committed to Judaism – to its holidays, its rituals, its transformative ideas and perspectives. But despite this passionate embrace of my tradition, I need to make a confession:
I don’t get Chanukah.
Of course, I know what they tell me it should mean: Chanukah recalls the Jewish triumph in the Maccabean Revolt of the second century BCE. It’s a celebration of our ancestors’ victory over oppression, of God’s miraculous intervention in our history, of religious freedom, and of very oily foods. But as a student of Judaism, none of this makes much sense to me. Rather, it seems to me that many of the things our tradition encourages us to celebrate during this festival don’t seem very…Jewish. Let’s look at some examples:
Miracles. The Talmud relates the story that when the Maccabees took over the Temple and went to dedicate it, they found just one small jar of oil there – enough to last for only a single day. But a great miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days, giving them time to refresh their supplies. Thank God for that miracle, the message seems to be. (Literally!) We Jews need God’s miracles if we are to be able to do what we need to do.
Really? We’re supposed to rely on miracles? Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, echoing longstanding Jewish theology, taught that we should “[P]ray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” Judaism has always taught that, while we should acknowledge God’s miracles, we should never depend on them. That’s why Abraham, knowing that God had promised him the land of Israel, still negotiated with its inhabitants to secure Sarah’s burial place. That’s why Joseph, having prophesied his ascent to power, still worked to ensure his rise to authority in Egypt. That’s why so many pious Israeli soldiers, having studied divine assurances of Jewish sovereignty over the land, have still fought so courageously to ensure it. To put it differently, if Chanukah teaches us to rely on miracles, that teaching flies in the face of many centuries of Jewish teaching to the contrary.
Heroism. Let’s be clear here, the heroism that Chanukah celebrates is military heroism. And while it is important to honor our military heroes, Judaism has long been inclined to celebrate spiritual and intellectual heroes far more readily than military ones. That’s why the Haftarah for Chanukah is from Zechariah: “It is not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
Indeed, there have been many other wars in Jewish history, and they’ve yielded heroes aplenty – wars against Babylonia and Rome, uprisings during the Holocaust, and others. These were astoundingly courageous people, but we don’t celebrate them with holidays. Perhaps that’s because Judaism is so ambivalent about war. Necessary though it sometimes is, war is at best a necessary evil. To celebrate those who distinguish themselves in war runs the risk of glorifying war itself.
Zealotry: The Maccabees were religious Zealots. Unlike other Jews during their time, they refused to compromise, and were willing to resort to bloodshed in order to defend the Temple’s purity. Perhaps that was necessary, but, again, is such zealotry something we should celebrate?
Light. Chanukah, they say, is the Festival of Light. That’s an evocative image, but I’m not sure what it means. Light can be beautiful, of course, but so can darkness. Light was necessary for Temple rituals, and we light beautiful candles for many of our festivals. And although Chanukah has long been described as chag urim – the Light Holiday – I can’t help but think that the recent popularity of this image is simply a way of providing a Jewish parallel to another non-Jewish holiday that features beautiful lights at this time of year – a holiday that will remain…uh…Christmas.
So, I guess I echo the words that the Talmud used to begin its discussion of this holiday – “Mai Chanukah? What is Chanukah – what’s it all about?”
For me, the most meaningful answer to that question can be found in history. Contrary to what many of us learned as children, the original reason that Chanukah was eight days long did not have anything to do with a miraculous jar of oil. Instead, many historians suggest Chanukah is eight days long because it began a late celebration of Sukkot – another holiday of the same length. As it turns out, the siege of Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt prevented the Jews of that time from making their Sukkot sacrifices that year – they couldn’t get to the Temple because of the conflict. As a result, that year, they offered their celebrations late, and what we now call Chanukah originally started as “Sukkot B’kislev” – December Sukkot.
Think about it. When the Maccabees first took back the Temple, they could have just ignored their recent Sukkot frustrations. Or, they could have despaired, bemoaning their inability to celebrate it. But instead, they made do. They responded to their past struggles in a way that allowed them to come as close as they could to obeying God’s command for Sukkot offerings. It wasn’t perfect, but life rarely is. Especially when you’ve just rebelled against one of the most powerful empires in the world.
Chanukah, then, recalls this great moment in Jewish history – a moment when we did the best we could. We didn’t do everything we wanted, but we did all that was possible. We made do in a very difficult situation. This, I believe, is something worth celebrating. Because in the real world, making do is often the best we can do. Making do is often what it takes to guarantee our future.
So happy Chanukah. And this year, in this flawed world of ours, may you do your best just as our ancestors did. You probably won’t be perfect, but if you do it right, you can do great simply by doing all you can.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman is the spiritual leader at Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish Congregation.