Q: As Chanukah approaches, we ask how can Jews mark the festival in a meaningful way?
Rabbi Danny Rich says…
In public perception, religion isn’t doing so well. Ex-Arkansas Governor and 2016 US Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee called for atheists working in public service to be fired; Islamic State continues its murderous campaign against Yazidis and Christians; Buddhists rampaged through Muslim areas in the Burmese capital; and in Israel ‘religious Jews’ called for “death to Arabs,” while some Muslim Palestinians called for “death to the Jews”.
Chanukah is a time to celebrate the defeat of the Syrio-Greeks by the guerrilla Maccabee army, the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty.
The details of the Maccabean victory and the 100 years of Jewish royal rule are rarely discussed as we light candles and eat latkes and doughnuts. The illuminations and the consumption have in common oil, which arises from the Talmudic legend that the victors arriving at the temple found oil to last for one day, although by divine miracle it enabled the lights to stay on for a week and a day.
Our Talmud sages changed Chanukah’s focus from military success to Godly beneficence knowing the dangers of extremism and the possibility that the greatest of heroes, without the guidance and sensibilities of religion, have the potential to become the fiercest of oppressors.
As we commemorate Chanukah, let us commit to two tasks: resist the extremism to which we can all become subject and celebrate the decency we can all practice.
• Rabbi Danny Rich is chief executive of Liberal Judaism
Ed Herman says…
Whether owing to cultural references or similarities of timing and outward appearance with Christmas and Diwali, Chanukah is probably the most easily-identifiable Jewish festival to non-Jews.
As with every festival, Jews will celebrate in a variety of ways – some purely traditional, some wholly cultural, many specific to one family. Is one way of celebrating more meaningful than another?
Almost 15 years ago as a student in Birmingham, I searched for inspiration for my Ancient History dissertation. Chanukah approached and I began thinking about the Maccabees. An analysis of the causes of their revolt made a decent dissertation – and gave me a new insight into Chanukah. Restrictions on Judaism by the Seleucid king Antiochus pushed Mattathias into action – a famous part of the Chanukah story. Less well-known is the infighting between ‘Hellenised’ and traditional Jews at that time, driven in part by manoeuvring over the crucial position of High Priest.
Was this both revolt and civil war? A victory for freedom over religious oppression and for traditionalism over modern interpretation? Like any historical analysis, you’ll form an opinion based on sources you study and your own beliefs; but however you slice it, the Maccabean revolt looks like an internal and external struggle for Jewish identity.
The way you choose to celebrate Chanukah – modern or traditional, big or small, public or private – doesn’t matter. That you are free to make the choice is in many ways the most meaningful of all.
• Ed Herman is an officer of Liberal Judaism