Chanukah, oh Chanukah, a time for reinvention

By Paula Creed with Rabbi Jeffrey Falick

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah invites you to celebrate Chanukah at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 16 in the Fireside Room of the Bonita Bay Club. Make your reservation by mailing a check payable to “HJH” in the amount of $40 per person to Joan Weinstein, 15191 Cedarwood Lane, Apt. 2505, Naples, FL 34110. Reservations must be received by Monday, December 11. You are encouraged to bring your menorah. Candles will be provided.

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Would it matter if you discovered that the Chanukah “miracle of the oil” was a legend invented hundreds of years after Jews began to celebrate the holiday? For Humanistic Jews it matters a great deal because knowing the origins of our holidays helps us see how they evolved and why, liberating us to make them our own.

In mid-second century B.C.E. Israel, Greek influences had led many Jews – particularly the well-educated and powerful – to embrace a more cosmopolitan Hellenized way of life. Backed by Seleucid Greek rulers, they even gained control of the Temple. Meanwhile, the more traditionally-minded fumed at what they perceived as disobedience of God. When the Greek emperor Antiochus IV backed the Hellenizers, imposing anti-religious laws, war broke out.

The Maccabees won and established their own kingdom. To mark their triumph, they declared an eight-day celebration beginning on 25 Kislev, a date that conveniently falls near the time of the winter solstice. Solstice festivals to encourage the return of the sun by lighting fires were widespread in that region. These rituals gave a small sense of control to those who lived at the mercy of a capricious natural world.

Though the Maccabees saw themselves as anti-assimilationists par excellence, they were not immune from outside influences or ignorant of festivals of light. The book of II Maccabees claims that the new rulers declared an eight-day festival as a delayed celebration of the fall holiday of Sukkot which they failed to commemorate during the war. They also had in mind Solomon’s dedication of the original Temple during Sukkot. But one other element of Sukkot may have tipped the scales because, alongside the sukkah and other familiar Sukkot traditions, ancient Sukkot observances also featured torchlight ceremonies. So, was the Maccabees’ invention of Chanukah an attempt to devise their own winter solstice festival?

Whatever their self-proclaimed reasons for inventing Chanukah, two things are clear: 1) The holiday is as closely timed to the winter solstice as a lunar calendar will allow, and 2) there is not a single mention of the “miracle of oil” in any contemporaneous account of the war and its aftermath.

That little addition to the Maccabee tale is first mentioned hundreds of years later by Talmudic Rabbis who sought to re-position the Maccabee victory as entirely dependent upon God. This, they hoped, would tamp down on any future plans for zealous uprisings, something they knew would be disastrous for the Jews.

For Humanistic Jews, the Maccabees’ invention of the holiday and the later Rabbis’ willingness to invent a new “reason for the season” serve as reminders that every Jewish tradition is both human created and open to re-evaluation and re-definition.

In the centuries to come, Zionists would position the Maccabees as heroes of Jewish self-determination. In America, rabbis emphasized its themes of religious liberty, resonant in the “land of the free.” Meanwhile, American Jewry – inspired by Christmas just as surely as the Maccabees were by Greek and solstice traditions – decorated and exchanged gifts like their Christian neighbors.

For Humanistic Jews, this flexibility of interpretation reminds us that there have always been multiple voices in Judaism; that it is a living tradition we ourselves create and continuously re-fashion for our own needs.