Hanukkah's History: Challenging but Full of Meaning

November 21, 2011Joshua M. Z. Stanton

The history of Hanukkah squeezes us between two competing narratives: one of idealization and one of consternation.

The former encourages us to view Hanukkah as a holiday of liberation, when the Maccabees overthrew their Hellenistic occupiers in pursuit of faith and freedom. The Jews wanted a homeland free of outside ruler and were willing to pick up arms in self-defense.

The latter emphasizes the un-miraculous nature of the conflict and the fact that, when 'free' during the Hasmonean period (which followed the Maccabean conquest), Jewish leaders at times engaged in programs of forced conversion and other unsavory acts. Freedom from Hellenistic domination did not liberate Jews from internal strife and harsh rulers.

Perhaps it is because of this awkward duality in our historical narratives that we often retreat to the broader themes and rituals of Chanukah rather than the complexities of its underlying history. Don't argue about what happened, this approach suggests. Let's focus instead on the pleasant elements -- enjoy time with family and friends, delicious food, and sacred moments with light during dark winter days.

While I am one who takes great pleasure in latke-making (and eating), dreidel spinning, and menorah-lighting, I sense a major shortcoming to this approach: a fear of knowing.

If the Maccabees are truly to be seen as freedom-fighters, then robustly celebrating their victory entails understanding what the victory signified in a nuanced way. If the Maccabees were power-hungry and fighting primarily to establish a dynasty of their own, then it is important to understand how and why that dynasty endured -- and whether a lust for power was in fact elemental to the enduring period of stability.

The importance of Hanukkah's history is magnified by its present misapplication by those least likely to understand it: Jewish dati leumi (religious ultra-nationalists) who seize upon it to 'reclaim' land beyond the borders of the sovereign State of Israel. They apply ancient military understandings to modern conflicts and redraw maps that became outdated more than two millennia ago. It is unthinkable to release our history to those whose drive to misuse it surpasses our own to understand it.

Though of profound significance to contemporary Israeli politics, the need to study Hanukkah's history extends far beyond its borders. It comes down to a more fundamental understanding of ourselves. If the Hasmonean period was truly the last period (until the modern State of Israel) in which Jews lived in an autonomous state, we must come to understand how it was that we lived. What were our joys, sorrows, and opportunities? What held us together, drove us apart, and left us indifferent? Who were we as a sovereign people? Without delving into these questions, we are limiting our intellectual freedom, even as we celebrate (or express concern about) a narrative of political liberation.

It seems ironic to light menorahs in a contemporary celebration of Hanukkah, even as we shy away from enlightenment about our people and our history. The symbol of freedom in one historical narrative of Hanukkah should be applied as much to thought as it is to ritual observance.

Joshua Stanton is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, where he is studying on a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellowship. He is also Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (www.irdialogue.org) at Auburn Theological Seminary and co-Director of Religious Freedom USA (www.religiousfreedomusa.org), which works to ensure that freedom of religion is as protected in practice as it is in writ.

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