Hanukkah: The culture wars
Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, is often celebrated as a military victory. The Seleucid Greeks, ancestors of Alexander the Great, oppressed the Jews and did not permit them to practice their religion. Zeus was erected as a statue in the Holy Temple, and a swine was slaughtered there. The practice and teaching of Judaism was forbidden. The Maccabees rose up and won many battles against the most powerful nation in the world.
The story of Hanukkah is told in Maccabees 1 and 2. While those books are part of the Christian canon, they are not part of the Jewish Bible. The story of Hanukkah is told by the scroll of the Hasmoneans.
The Talmud made sure that Hanukkah was understood as a rededication of religious values which were on the verge of being crushed by the tentacles of the Greek Empire. Hellenization meant a homogeneity of cultures based upon the Greek ideal of beauty, philosophical discourse and fate. Judaism was wholly opposed to the Greek ideal, rather stressing the unity of one G-d, the power of free choice, and the primacy of mitzvoth. The clash of cultures between the Hellenistic and the Jewish could not have been any greater.
We are replaying the Hanukkah story today. Among Jews and non-Jews, there is great attraction to a culture devoid of purpose, divinity and unity. Rather, we seem to lust after vacuous ideals unsupported by the moorings of morality and predicated upon immediate ego gratification. This is not the Jewish way, but it did find its beginnings in Greek, and later Roman, thought.
During Greek times, there were many Jews who themselves assimilated into the seductive and seemingly marvelous Greek culture. Those who clung to the Jewish faith and fought against the death of Jewish ideals were often mischaracterized as zealots or otherwise out of touch with “modern” trends.
Hanukkah became, with the passage of millennia, celebrated in a very low-key way. In Christian culture, Christmas was a tsunami overtaking any memory of the fundamental purpose of Hanukkah.
In the early 1950s, a Chassidic Rabbi named Menachem Mendel Schneerson reignited the fire represented by the Hanukkah candles. He preached the importance of public celebrations of Hanukkah and sought to instill within the Jewish people a sense of pride in their traditional values. Affectionately known as “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Schneerson unapologetically supported the public lighting of menorahs. He stressed the importance of the Jewish people placing menorahs in their windows, on their property, and even in public places. Suddenly, menorahs sprang up next to Christmas trees. Establishment Judaism found this trend objectionable and even embarrassing. Not so the Rebbe. He believed Hanukkah, like every other event on the calendar, was meant for joy, peace and spiritual fulfillment. Even birthdays, which many Orthodox Jews never paid attention to because they were not Jewish holidays, were suggested as significant events by the Rebbe. Thanks to the Rebbe’s influence, there are cars driving around in many places with menorahs on their roofs, looking vaguely like antlers in hunting season.
The message of Hanukkah is that all good and moral people in the world should rededicate themselves to those principles that make for a civilized and tolerant world. Hanukkah’s relationship to Christmas, just around the corner, is rebirth and rededication.
In my visit to Bethlehem, I was impressed by the modesty and simplicity of the place where Jesus was born. A simple Jew, a country preacher, Jesus was born into a Jewish culture where Hanukkah was already well established. He would have interacted with the Rabbis who codified in the Talmud those very virtues upon which Christianity is based.
To all friends and honorable people of every faith, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and all the best that the winter holiday seasons bring to families and friendships alike.
Cliff Rieders is a Board-Certified Trial Advocate in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a past member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority.
None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations or of this publication.