What is Chanukah?   

This is how the Talmud begins its short foray into the origins of Chanukah. Remarkably, there is very little material in the Talmud on Chanukah.  While Purim has a tractate all its own, Chanukah merits a few scattered lines and a number of minor mentions.  Chanukah was apparently not very much appreciated by the rabbis.  When the Talmud describes the holiday, it glosses over the great battles and offers the story of a very different miracle: A single cruse of pure oil miraculously lasting for eight days—a story not found in any early sources and whose first appearance is at least four hundred years after the Maccabee victory!

First, what actually happened?  What did the Maccabees and their supporters celebrate and why for eight days?  Why did the rabbis offer another narrative?  What motivated this turn away from battles to miracles that in effect reinvented the holiday?  And finally, what should it mean to us today?

There are of course many ways to tell a story, and ways we do are not unrelated to who we are.  Every community and generation has interpreted Chanukah in its own image.  For us there are a number of obvious contenders.  For American Jews it is most often about religious freedom from tyrants.  For Israelis it is about routing the armies of a dominating empire and winning back Jewish sovereignty.  For traditional Jews it is about a fight against assimilation.  Hasidic Jews took another path and read the story allegorically as a story about seeking one’s inner life and rededicating oneself to that small burning candle.  Indeed, every generation asks what the Rabbis ask when they open their short conversation on the holiday… “Mai Chanukah?” — What is Chanukah?

Historically speaking, a place to start is the apocryphal record, the books of Maccabees.  These books are historical accounts of the Hasmonean dynasty’s exploits written in Greek.  Much of what we know of the Hasmonean period is found in these two volumes.  Interestingly, they were included in the Catholic Bible but not in the Jewish or Protestant Bibles.  Maccabees I was written by a pro-Hasmonean patriot somewhere between 104 and 93 BCE.  Maccabees II, written as a response to Maccabees I, is an abridgement of a much longer historical work written by Jason of Cyrene.   Jason’s account is much more critical of the Hasmonean dynasty.   Perhaps it should not surprise us to find a government sponsored version of the story and a government critical version of the same events.

The author of Maccabees I tells us that “a wicked shoot sprouted” from the stock of Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the son of King Antiochus III.  We are introduced to Antiochus IV as a military looter.  “In his arrogance he went into the sanctuary and took the gold altar and the lampstand for the light… he took the secret treasures, which he found…back to his own country.  Not only was he a thief, he was a brutal general.  He “massacred the people and spoke with great arrogance.”

However, if it is a villain we are looking for we should keep reading.  We are told by the author of Maccabees I that Antiochus was not alone in his evil.   “At that time, lawless men arose in Israel and seduced many with their plea, “Come, let us make a covenant with the gentiles around us because ever since we have kept ourselves separated from them we have suffered many evils.”   The plea got so favorable a reception that some of the people took it upon themselves to apply to the king, who granted them liberty to follow the practices of the gentiles.  “Thereupon, they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the customs of the gentiles and underwent operations to disguise their circumcision, rebelling against the sacred covenant.”  “The aping of Greek manners reached a peak such that the young priests were no very interested in their Temple duties and longer eager to perform their duties at the altar and instead put the highest value on Greek honors.”

It appears that Jews in Jerusalem were tired being a backwater in the kingdom.  They wanted the economic and political status that only an “A” list of Greek institutions would buy them.  In fact, the priestly families were among the most assimilated in the country.  In the second book of Maccabees we are introduced to the high priest, Jason, who paid Antiochus an enormous tribute for the privilege of introducing Greek custom into Jerusalem. “On taking office, Jason immediately brought his fellow Jews over to the Greek style of life…He founded a gymnasium beneath the very citadel…

Here you have the first interpretive splits.  Who is the villain?  If Antiochus is the villain as it appears in the first chapter of Maccabees I then the revolt is for religious freedom.  Antiochus might then be cast as the persecuting Charles II or George III and the Maccabees as the Puritans or as the poorly armed revolutionary forces under George Washington.  As well, if Antiochus is the villain then Israelis have no trouble reading the story either.  They easily cast Judah as Moshe Dayan and the Hasmonean fighters as Israeli soldiers defending their country from the powerful armies aimed at their destruction.  However, if the real villains are the Hellenizing Jews who actually brought the Syrian Greeks in to defend them, then Mattathias’ campaign will look more like a civil war between religious and secular Jews.

In response to the increasing cultural and religious influence of the Hellenes (Jewish Hellenists) in the holy city, we learn that Mattathias and his family left Jerusalem and moved to Mode’in.  Eventually, the king’s officials in charge of the enforcing the apostasy come to the town and attempt to impose their cult on the people.  They ask Mattathias to be the first to come forward and sacrifice on the pagan altar.  Mattathias famously replied: “Even if all the gentiles under the king’s rule listen to his order to depart from the religion of their fathers and choose to obey his commands, nevertheless, I and my sons and my kinsmen shall follow the covenant of our fathers.”   

Following Mattathias’ speech a Jewish man came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon on the altar in Mode’in.  When Mattathias saw this, he was filled with zeal and rage…and slew him and kings officials enforcing the sacrifices.  The editorializing of the author is overt.  “He acted zealously for the sake of the Torah, as Phineas acted against Zimri, the son of Salom.”  Following this dramatic act of religious zealotry Mattathias and sons flee to the mountains and draw around them a growing force of resistance to the Syrian-Greek oppression.

The Maccabees began their campaign by destroying the illicit altars and forcibly circumcising all the uncircumcised babies found within the boundaries of Israel.  But soon, what started as religious resistance became a full throttle rebellion.  Judah, Mattathias’ third son, leads the rebels to a number of remarkable victories against the Syrian generals.  Philip, the royal commander in Jerusalem, sends for help, but Antiochus IV is busy taxing (and looting) the eastern regions of the Seleucid empire.  He appoints his young son, Antiochus V as coregent over the western regions of the empire with Lysias, his son’s guardian and chief minister.

But Lysias is not able to rout Judah and his guerilla army. The Hellenizing Jews of Jerusalem, seeing Judah’s military success, begin to get worried about being caught in between and ask Lysias to appeal to the coregent for a negotiated settlement.  Lysias, impressed by the strength of the resistance brings the question to the young coregent. The coregent sends a letter to the Jews offering amnesty to the Jewish fighters, an end to the imposed cult and permission to resume the observance of the Torah if the fighting ceases and the Jews return to their homes.

From Megilat Taanit, an early rabbinic calendar, we learn that the majority of the Jews accept the offer of the coregent and even celebrate the date annually on Adar 28th as the end of the persecution.  It is very interesting that the author of Maccabees I never mentions the amnesty offer, nor the existence of such a celebration.

Most of us grew up with a portrayal of the conflict as one between the wicked Antiochus and the Maccabees.   What becomes clear from the historical record is that the Syrian Greeks were in league with a large community of assimilationist Jews who wanted what they had to offer.   Moreover, when read in our contemporary context, the Maccabees come off as a rather fundamentalist group.  For the crowd of Jews who visit gymnasiums a lot more often than synagogues, this story poses some serious challenges.

There are two likely reasons the rabbis downplayed Chanukah altogether and when they dealt with it they offered a different story to explain the popular ritual that had grown up among the people of lighting a candle for eight successive nights.  The rabbis seem to have been wary about celebrating a military victory.   As well, the Hasmonean dynasty was ultimately not successful.  They were quite critical of what became Chanukah’s heros and their offspring.  The Maccabees themselves may have begun in resistance of the Greco-Roman empire, but power brought them fairly quickly to assimilation and corruption.  Finding affirmation instead in the rededication of the Temple and with a miracle that, while not quite as shockingly miraculous as Solomon’s dedication ceremony, was still about fire and light moves the center of the story from power and military might to the Sanctuary and God’s miraculous presence among us.

So how did the eight day holiday actually begin if the story of the oil lasting eight days is much much later?  The book of Maccabees itself attempts to explain the rededication that followed the battle and the recovery of political autonomy.

With the amnesty accepted, Lysias retreats in the early spring of 164 BCE.   Ostensibly, the war is over.  Judah is now free to recover and purify the Temple.   Remarkably, he does not.   What was he waiting for?  Why does he delay the rededication of the Temple till the late autumn?  Why does Chanukah, literally, the rededication, happen on the 25th of  Kislev when the war was over nearly eight months earlier?

According to the historian, Jonathan Goldstein, there were religious sensibilities involved.  Pious Jews claimed that while many of the prophesies of the Book of Daniel along with others from the apocryphal books had occurred, there were more miracles to come.  The book of Enoch had even promised that God’s own Temple would descend from heaven to Jerusalem and replace the desecrated Temple built of human hands.  Even if most doubted this possibility, still, the Solomonic Temple was inaugurated by a miraculous fire from heaven.   Judah could not just burst in upon the desecrated Temple without extraordinary care.  According to Goldstein, Judah waited till Tishri of that year because some of these prophecies were to take place at the beginning of the Sabbatical year.  The Sabbatical year typically began at the end of the high holiday cycle.  They waited till the end of Sukkoth, and nothing happened.  Frustrated, Judah and his men decided to act.  They destroyed the idolatrous obelisk, the “abomination of desolation” which had been erected by Antiochus on the Temple Mount.   Still, the purification of the altar and the rededication of the Temple were trickier matters.

As well, there were doubts.  Perhaps they had been mistaken in regard to the date.  The calendar had not been under their power during the persecution period.  It was conjectured that they had missed a month or perhaps even two months of intercalation.   (Seven times in nineteen years an extra month is added or intercalated in order to insure that the lunar and solar calendars match up.)  Consequently, they waited, another month, till late in Heshvan, and again no miracles occurred.  Judah needed to respond to the frustration that the delay was creating among the people.  He decided to remove the profaned altar where pigs had been sacrificed and he built and set up a new altar.   Everything now was done but one thing, a rededication ceremony.  But Judah was still not confident enough to dedicate the altar.  The dedication of the Temple altar was enshrined in Jewish memory as a supernatural event.  Judah feared that an overtly human overture would be a violation of the sanctity of the place.  They needed a sign of some weight in order to proceed.

Since there was a possibility that the calendar was off not one month but two, Judah waits yet another month.   It is now the month of Kislev, but this time however, Judah is ready.  Kislev offered Judah a ripe opportunity.  The 25th of Kislev was a well known anniversary. It was the date that Antiochus first demanded a monthly sacrifice to his despised foreign god.  Judah allowed till after Shemini Azteret, the 23nd of the month, for the prophesied miracles to occur, and they did not.   He then quickly prepared in the following two days and announced that an extra eight day rededication holiday, a “second Sukkoth” beginning on the very day that Antiochus had chosen for his idolatrous sacrifice.    Sukkoth itself was a sign.  Solomon dedicates his Temple in an eight day celebration which extended that year’s Sukkoth celebration.  In fact, in Maccabees II the first name of Chanukah is “Sukkoth in Kislev.”

On the evening of Kislev 25th they brought the menorah, the incense altar and the bread table into the inner sanctuary.  They offered incense, arranged the bread on the table and lit the menorah for the first time in years.  Judah probably made much of the lighting of the menorah not only because it was an act that marked the beginning of the eight day celebration, but because unlike the offering of incense, this ritual could be immitated everywhere outside the sanctuary. The association of the holiday with kindling lights appears to be very early.   When Josephus describes the holiday of dedication, he calls it “Urim” meaning lights.

So, now that we have a historical frame for understanding Chanukah we may find ourselves with more than a mild December dilemma.   Do we highlight the “miracle of oil” as the central element knowing what we know?   Do we celebrate the surprising the military power of an ancient army?   Perhaps celebrating religious freedom works for American Jews, but isn’t the story of resistance more like a civil war or even a jihad against Westerizing heretics?

If some of these Chanukah narratives are beginning to lose salience, what might be our contribution to the ongoing meaning-making of Chanukah look like?   As the rabbis ask in the Talmud, mai Chanukah?

If these American and Israeli versions, while quite popular for the last 50 years, are beginning to lose their immediate relevance, perhaps we ought to address the challenges of the historical record in the way that our sages did by rereading Maccabees I and II into our own context.  Indeed, if we take Goldstein’s historical account seriously, then among the messages of the holiday is to fully respect human agency as a means by which God does miracles.   If so, then the eight day celebration is not only about God’s saving his beleaguered people but about a leader’s wise use of historical precedent in order to persuade the people to renew the Temple service without miracles.

Perhaps, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has suggested, we need to celebrate the success of the middle way.  The resolution of the civil war was accomplished by moderates on both sides, moderate traditionalists and moderate assimilationists who abandoned their radicals comrades and joined together to rebuild the fractured community.

This does sound strangely relevant for our moment.  Chanukah then could offer a potential cure for the disappointing fractures in our own community, not to mention the ills of Washington.   In the ancient world it worked (at least for awhile) to create a less polarized Jewish reality in the aftermath of the war.   This cultural grasp of Chanukah as a rededication to Jewish culture, but as unapologetic Americans, could ground rich new ways to celebrate Chanukah.

If we have been avoiding the conflict of the Hellenizers and the Pietists why not face the beast?  Instead of distancing ourselves from the conflicts of authenticity and assimilation, perhaps we ought to employ the question as a challenge and celebrate a holiday that is much more interesting than the one we now observe so widely and so lightly.   Instead of eight days of presents, (a coarse imitation of both Christmas and the materialist society we live in) why not remake Chanukah as an eight day celebration of diaspora Jewish culture?    We could celebrate a different aspect of Jewish culture each day—food, literature, art, music, dance, philosophy, wisdom and faith.   Perhaps Chanukah is the time of year that we ought to look at the tensions between our desire to be part of the larger world and our mandate to be a unique and special people.   Such a remaking of Chanukah would not make us comfortable allies with zealots, but it might well allow us to ask ourselves some challenging questions about Jewish authenticity and purpose.

Lastly, there is the option to look inward, as do the Hasidim.  A more spiritual frame for a rebooted Chanukah might be surprisingly more intimate and personal as well.   In the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger describes the Jerusalem Temple as something found in every Jew.   In Exodus we read,  “Let them make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among (or within) them” (Ex. 25:6).  The Gerer Rebbe encourages us to rededicate the holy Temple on Chanukah by reconnecting to our soul.   The Temple inside us becomes manifest when a person recognizes that all life-energy comes from the soul, and so from God.  Thus we say each day: “The soul which You have placed within me is pure.”   This means that there is a pure place within each of us …. but it is deeply hidden.  When the Temple was standing, it was clear that all life-energy came from God.  But now that dwelling-place has been secreted away.   The Temple has not disappeared, it is hiding within us.  It can be found by searching oneself with the Hanukah candles.  By the power of inwardness we can find the hidden light within all our own inner chambers.  This is the meaning of the statement (Taanit 11a-b): “A person must always measure himself as though a holy being dwelt within his guts.”  Of a person who conducts himself in this way it is written: “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” Truly within them!”

Chanukah in this Hasidic key isn’t about the war against the Greeks, miraculous oil, cultural rededication to outward expressions of Jewish practice, affirming human agency or taking a middle way.   It is about rededication to a form of Jewish life that begins with a recovery of an authentic self, a rediscovery of one’s deeper sense of unique purpose.  The light that for the rabbinic sages served to publicize an ancient miraculous renewal, was turned into a flashlight leading inwardly on a journey to the soul.

Perhaps the most exciting element of Chanukah then is its quicksilver nature.  It renews itself by reconstituting the original material of military and spiritual resistance into dazzling new forms of cultural and spiritual creativity.  And so, perhaps its fundamental image is that of a rededication as a reboot, a recovery of something lost, a restoration that is also a renewall, like the rekindling of a lamp with an ember found deep inside us.

Chanukah Sameach!