Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why is Chanukah such a big deal?

There was once a rag-tag band of bearded religious guerrillas that fought a mighty empire so they could practice their form of religion. They won a surprising victory. When they came to power they imposed (by force) their very strict form of religion on the population. But after at a time they became so corrupt and vicious that many co-religionists rebelled, and an even more powerful empire overthrew their rule. I am, of course, referring to the Macabees. (Who do you think I was referring to?)

For hundreds of years this was a nice oral story with nationalistic and some religious overtones -until the Rabbis of the Talmud got their hands on it. For a variety of reasons they were not comfortable making the Maccabees the center of the story. Not the least of it is that after the Rabbis lived through the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt they were not very comfortable making the Maccabees the heroes of this story. Much safer to make God the hero. So we got the story of the miraculous one day jar of oil that lasted 8 days in the Temple in Jerusalem ( if only I can get a gallon of gas to last so long in my car). Off course the Rabbis also had to make lots of rules how, when and how long to light the candles. The rabbis was so against making the Maccabees the heroes they did not include the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Jewish cannon. That is too bad because it is rip roaring story with even some blood and gore.

So this was Chanukah for thousands of years. A nice “minor” holiday- until the modern era, when it exploded. Why? Well in modern day Israel the story of the Maccabees fits in perfectly with the proud, strong fighting Jew defeating oppression against all odds. So you have The Maccabi Games and even Maccabee Beer (truly awful). There are no Pharisee Games or Pharisee Beer (luckily).
In the United States Chanukah served two purposes for American Jews. First since Chanukah is celebrated around December we now can have a holiday that, if it does not completely compete with Christmas, at least it is better than nothing. It also fits with the American ideal of religious freedom. Every time around Chanukah Rabbis and Jewish leaders of all sorts trot out this old chestnut. What is so funny is that it is not true- at least what most Americans think of religious freedom. The Maccabees were not religious pluralists exactly. For sure they wanted religious freedom for themselves- but for no one else. The Maccabees used forced circumcision and conversion by the sword. Not exactly an American ideal They especially were against Hellenist Jews. The ancient version of American assimilationist Jews. I shudder to think what the Maccabees would do with American Jews.

So the lesson is never let history get in the way of a good story and a fun holiday. Happy Chanukah.