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Have you ever asked why we celebrate Hanukkah?

Have you ever asked why we celebrate Hanukkah?

Putting aside the miraculous longevity of the oil, can anyone tell me why Reform Jews celebrate Hanukkah?

This festival, which was a belated Sukkot celebration, delayed due to a war, has become the second most celebrated and clearly most recognized Jewish holiday of the calendar in North America.  But the FULL story line should cause Reform Jews to ask serious questions about the continued celebration of the excommunication and murder of forward-looking, assimilating Jews by a group of ultra-religious warriors.

So the Jewish community was trying to deal with the wicked King Antiochus who wasn't so good to the Jews, enacting really bad laws and such. Then our hero, Mattathias of the Maccabees fame, was all like, "Oh no you didn't!!!! We are done with this oppressive rule and we are fighting back! We Jews, fool; we aren't making sacrifices to your deity!" (A slightly edited 1 Maccabees 2:19-22)  But most of the Jewish population at the time was not very into this fight...they wanted to find a way either to co-exist or assimilate.  Many were even willing to just go along with the rules King Antiochus ordered, even if they were in opposition to Jewish law

The next part of the story often is left out of the picture books.  In addition to killing some of the king's men, Jews were killed by the Maccabees for engaging in conduct that could have been undertaken simply to protect their families and survive. However, that conduct was deemed "too much" for the Maccabees: 

"Now when he had left speaking these words [refusing the king's decree to make sacrifices], there came one of the Jews in the sight of all to sacrifice on the altar which was at Modin, according to the king's commandment.
Which thing when Mattathias saw, he was inflamed with zeal, and his reins trembled, neither could he forbear to shew his anger according to judgment: wherefore he ran, and slew him upon the altar.

Also the king's commissioner, who compelled men to sacrifice, he killed at that time, and the altar he pulled down," (1 Maccabees 2:23-25). 


Now the traditional answer to why we celebrate Hanukkah would be that Mattathias took the above described action to preserve Judaism and our traditions for the future.  Our celebration is both one of the miracle of the oil and of defeat of the bad guys.  But who are the real bad guys here?  Clearly we know we don't like the King because he was in fact, evil, as indicated above.  Yet are the Maccabees the good guys?  What about the Jews who wanted to figure out a way to be both Jewish and Greek/Assyrian/Romans/whatever else?  The assimilators didn't "win" so they didn't write the history, so we don't know the dead guy's story.  We have no idea why he chose to sacrifice on the altar as ordered by the king.  But we do know Mattahias killed him for doing it.

So why, as Reform Jews, do we celebrate Hanukkah?  Anybody?

Enjoy your latkes!

Published: 12/01/2010

Categories: Jewish Holidays, Hanukkah
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