Voices of M-A: The True Meaning of Hanukkah

Sophie Zalipsky

If asked to name a Jewish holiday, the average American would probably think of Hanukkah first, perhaps tentatively followed by Yom Kippur. As a Jew, this phenomenon always struck me as odd; as Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is among the least significant and the least spiritual. It is a historical and nationalist holiday, not a biblical one, based on the story of the Maccabees and their revolt against the oppression of the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC. Yet the common knowledge surrounding it seems to be limited to a handful of vague ideas which have given way to some ridiculous misconceptions.

First of all, Hanukkah is by no means a “Jewish Christmas.” Its apparent significance today stems from the efforts of American Jews to integrate and to be accepted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Traditionally, children would receive some coins, called “gelt” in Yiddish, with which to play dreidel, but this practice morphed into gift-giving as American Jews assimilated into the Christian-dominated mainstream culture and as a result of commercialization of Christmas. This cultural crossover goes both ways; some of the most popular Christmas songs, including “White Christmas,” “Let it Snow,” “Santa Baby,” and “Winter Wonderland,” were written by Jews, and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ was invented by Robert L. May, a Jewish employee of Montgomery Ward, as a marketing ploy to sell coloring books at Christmastime.

This trend of Jewish assimilation seems to have blurred the lines between Judaism and Christianity, making Judaism more widely accepted in society, but less commonly understood. For instance, there exists an impression that Judaism is a sort of “ethnic” Christianity, or just Christianity without Jesus. The prevalence and misuse of the term “Judeo-Christian” has spread the perception that Judaism is just the prequel to the Christianity. Considering the complexity and rich traditions behind both religions, this lumping them together is bound to imply inaccuracies.

Before continuing, I should note that most statements starting with “Jews believe…” are oversimplifications, if only because there is such diversity of opinion and belief within the faith itself. Jews joke that in order to get the number of opinions in a room full of Jews, you count the Jews, add one, and square it. So, the Jewish consensus on social issues, such as homosexuality, tend to be nonexistent as the range of opinion from sect to sect and from person to person is so vast. However, there are some key differences between Judaism and Christianity that most Jews agree upon.

Firstly, the Jewish faith focuses on life on Earth; any concept of the afterlife is an afterthought. Good deeds and moral living are encouraged for the sake of improving life on earth for oneself and the community, not in order to achieve salvation or avoid damnation. Most Jews don’t even believe in heaven or hell. Jews don’t have a concept of sin, for that matter; the emphasis is on encouraging good deeds rather than penalizing the bad. The commandments laid out in the Torah and Talmud are generally regarded as guidelines for moral living, with no emphasis on judgement. One teaching from Pirkei Avot (a book of ethical maxims from the rabbis of old) warns “Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to glorify yourself, nor a spade with which to dig into others,” summarizing this perspective.

The Pirkei Avot, as well as the Talmud, Neviim (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings), and other assorted texts grouped into the Jewish Apocrypha, make up the host of religious literature that contributes to the Jewish worldview. Critical discussion and syllogistic argumentation are such central values in Judaism that we literally transcribed the arguments of rabbis into the 40 volume Talmud. The idea that the entirety of Judaism is confined to the Torah/Old Testament ignores the millennia of development and history that have occurred since then. For example, the Christian idea of life beginning with conception does not apply in Judaism; potential life is regarded as less valuable than the existing life of the mother, a commentary discussed in depth in the Talmud but hardly at all in the Torah.

The feature of Judaism most important to me is its character as an “ethno-religion.” That is, because of historical and religious influences, Judaism is a cultural and ethnic identity as well as a spiritual one. Rituals and traditional foods dominate Jewish holidays, so that observance works whether one believes in G-d or not.

When I arrived at M-A, having spent middle and elementary school in the bubble of a Jewish Day School, I noticed a widespread derision for spirituality and religion, mainly directed at Christianity, but also critical of theists in general. I could relate to the aversion towards dogmatic organized religion and to the emphasis on secular, pragmatic perspectives, but found myself indignant when classmates couldn’t understand my obligation to miss events or school days for holidays or my reluctance to devour cheeseburgers. All of this emerged at a time in my life when I was already beginning to question my faith, belief in G-d, and spiritual connection to my heritage.

The realization that most Jewish practices apply regardless of belief in G-d made me far more comfortable in exploring my beliefs; I never felt alienated or disrespected in Jewish settings and found others happy to discuss the significance and context for facets of Judaism with which I took issue. I began to understand the true extent of Judaism’s adaptability and respect for the individual. Modern variations in prayers and rituals have recently emerged, particularly in regard to the traditional role of women. For example, the Amidah, the prayer chanted when the Torah is brought out for reading at morning Shabbat services, includes praises to the virtues of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their relationship with G-d, but many reform and/or feminist Jews have taken to adding the foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, without changing the tune. Another similar adaptation arose in reference to a rabbi’s statement that on the day a woman became a rabbi he would put an orange on his seder plate; now, many Jews have added the fruit to the other traditional foods.

These modifications to some outdated modes of thought represent one portion of a broad spectrum, ranging from the Reconstructionists to the Ultra-Orthodox, and, as I mentioned earlier, the last few millennia have been pretty argumentative within the Jewish community. The differences between these extremes have resulted in fairly dramatic dissension within the international Jewish community, such as the discussion of whether women should be allowed to pray, read from the Torah, or wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (as of now none of this is permitted). Other ongoing intra-Jewish issues include the centuries old (so, relatively young) contention between Ashkenazim (Eastern-European), Sephardim (Iberian), and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews and the slow but steady acceptance of Beta Israel, the community of Ethiopian Jews that renewed contact with the rest of the Jewish community in the 1970s.

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, also known as Hasmoneans, over the Seleucid Greeks in 168 BC. Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism and made Jewish practices punishable by death. The Greek armies sacked the Temple in Jerusalem and traveled and forced Jews to eat pork and worship the pagan gods. Matityahu and his son, Judah Maccabee, raised a rebel army to drive out the Greeks and liberate Jerusalem with guerrilla warfare, and they defeated their better equipped and larger foe. The Maccabees rededicated the ruined Temple, recreating the golden menorah from cheaper metals. They found one jar of oil left in the Temple, only enough to light the menorah for one night, but through the miracle of Hanukkah, the oil lasted for eight nights, at which point new oil could be found. Though the story often frames the Maccabees as heroes, historically speaking, they were religious zealots, condemning (and later murdering) the Jews who assimilated as well as the Greek oppressors. Thus the true story of Hanukkah is one of opposing extremes, each side fighting to forcibly impose its beliefs on the other.

Because of the miracle of the oil, traditional Hanukkah foods include latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiot (sort of jelly donuts) fried in oil, and for each night the oil in the Temple burned, another candle is added to the hanukkiah (like a menorah, but with eight branches instead of seven). The four letters on the dreidel stand for the four words in the phrase “nes gadol haya sham” or “a great miracle happened there.” On its surface, Hanukkah seems like another one of those Jewish “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” holidays, or like an excuse for Jews to exchange presents in December, but the history offers a broader lesson about the value of preserving one’s identity when assimilation seems like the path of least resistance. Though the Maccabees proved to be zealots, they demonstrated the importance of a balance and mutual respect between minority and majority culture, a lesson that still applies aptly in a society as diverse as modern day America.