Today is January 21, 2019 -
By Rabbi Steven Abraham
Every Chanukah Jews around the world celebrate one of the most beautiful rituals, that of lighting the Hanukiyah. For eight days, young and old kindle lights to commemorate a struggle that took place over 2,150 years ago and in many ways has continued to this very day. It is a struggle between a respect of our past versus the hope for our future. Judaism, from its inception, has been a lens for Jews to understand the issues of their time. Judaism is the lens which we have used for thousands of years to make sense of the world around us. Judaism never has been, nor will it ever be static; we understand that the Judaism preached and practiced by Moses was not the Judaism of Hillel, which was not the Judaism of Maimonides, and is not the Judaism of today. Our celebration of Chanukah gives us two different paradigms for Judaism as we look to honor our past while preserving our future.
How did this come about, you ask? The second century BCE, in Judea, was a time of great change as the outgoing leader, Alexander the Great, who had started a policy of pushing Hellenization (integration of Greek Culture) within Judea, had recently died. His successor was Antiochus IV. While Alexander the Great may have been a more passive pursuer of Hellenization, Antiochus was much more overt in both his goals and in his policies. For many Jews, the idea of becoming more like the majority culture appeared to be the right path. While for others, the prohibitions against sacrifice, circumcision, and Shabbat observance, just to name a few, was too much of a concession to make just to fit in. And as we have learned time and time again, it was the Maccabees led by Matisiyahu and his son Yehudah, along with his brothers who led a revolt against Hellenization.
What has always caused me great pain is that the Maccabees’ main adversary was not the Hellenized Syrians, but the Jews who had chosen to conform to Greek culture. The Maccabees understood they were not part of the majority culture or religion, but they resented the fact that their fellow Jews gave up their religious identity so easily. The Maccabees had an unbridled devotion to Judaism; they were in fact zealots. The paradigm of the Maccabees teaches us that while it is ok to set up lines in the sand, to acknowledge that our tent has boundaries, you must always be cognizant that to set up margins is to leave some people on the outside.
On the other side were the Jews who pushed their Jewish identity aside to become part of the prevailing culture: a group of people who valued conformity over diversity and believed that Judaism had nothing to say about the world they lived in, around the time of the destruction of the temple. They saw their faith as a hinderance to living a full life, not as a means to living a full life.
It was a fight for the soul of Judaism, a fight between those who thought Judaism needed to remain exactly as it was against those who thought it needed to conform to the world they lived in. The beauty is that neither side was wholly right or wrong. The Maccabees believed they were doing what was right by keeping the traditions and rituals exactly as they had been passed down. Yet what they forgot was that Judaism is a religion that thrives in its interaction with the modern world. Interestingly, both the Maccabees and those Jews who left Judaism feared diversity. The Maccabees wanted everyone to observe and believe in the same way, while those who left Judaism to follow Greek culture believed that to be different was simply too difficult, so they assimilated.
The struggle that took place over 2,150 years ago still takes place in the Jewish world, yet today more than ever before we are up to the challenge. As we light the Hanukiyah with our children and grandchildren by our sides, we recall the miracle that took place when a small amount of oil that was only supposed to last one day, lasted eight. May the light of the Chanukah candles remind us to honor and respect our past, while at the same time shine a light toward our collective future.