What Does It Mean to Celebrate Hanukkah in This Moment?

The complicated reality is that when it comes to ancient history, none of us has a monopoly on truth.

I’ve been thinking a lot this Hanukkah about the stories we tell.

Here’s a version many of us have heard: Once upon a time, the Greeks took over Israel, and they decided that Jews were Not Allowed To Jew. No Shabbat observance. No worship of God in the Temple. No circumcision. The Jews were all but helpless until(!) Judah Maccabee and his brothers heroically fought the Greeks and won! They went to the Temple in Jerusalem to clean it up after the Greeks had used it for all kinds of unspeakable things, but alas, in the whole of the Temple there was only one tiny cruse of oil. (Jews needed oil to purify… stuff? This version of the story always seems to leave the specifics out.) To get more oil would take eight days, but then a great miracle happened there, and the oil that should have lasted for one day lasted eight! Today, we Jews celebrate Hanukkah with the lighting of the menorah and the eating of oily foods to remember the victory and the miracle experienced by our ancestors so long ago.

Thank you, “Rugrats.” And Hebrew schools. And storybooks.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this version of the story, but it’s not exactly the whole truth, and this year, as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg reminded us in a powerful piece last week, when it comes to Hanukkah, we need to bravely face truth.

So here’s a little nuance that’s harder to explain to kids but that as adults we are more than ready for.

Let’s start with the fact that Hanukkah is not simply a tale of Bad Greeks vs. Pious Jews. The “Greeks” in question here were actually Hellenized Syrians, and the Jews, just like today’s Jews, had a variety of relationships with the community in which they lived. Some Jews Hellenized readily (or hesitantly), some died rather than behave like Greeks and some — most notably the Maccabees and their supporters — fought to preserve the sort of Judaism they wanted to practice. And while it’s true that the Maccabees won and did indeed reclaim the Temple, the Hasmonean Dynasty that they went on to form became corrupt in its own time.

Oh, and another big difference? In the historical version of the story, there was no miracle. That came about hundreds of years later, in the time of the Talmud, when the rabbis, perhaps wanting to create some distance from that corrupt dynasty, created the miraculous oil story. So you see, it’s not as simple as the children’s stories.

These days, I’m seeing a lot of folks trying to paint the Hanukkah story into our moment. A few days ago the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed about “Social Media Maccabees” speaking up against the onslaught of anti-Zionist public opinion. On the same day, an article in Time Magazine argued that the Maccabees’ zealous militarism and focus on territorial expansion should be set aside in favor of the Talmudic rabbis’ focus on the miracle of having enough to meet everyone’s needs. I’ve heard folks say that to be a Maccabee today is to stand with Israel. And I’ve heard folks say that to be a Maccabee today is to support Palestinians.

The truth is that the Maccabees are very, very claimable. The IDF soldiers could be the Maccabees fighting the Arab states with their much greater numbers. The Palestinian youth throwing stones could be the Maccabees fighting back against the overwhelming power of the IDF. The Jewish settlers illegally in the West Bank could be the Maccabees repelling the “influx” of “outsiders” to their rightful land and way of life. The “Rabbis for Ceasefire” activists could be the Maccabees seeking a return to a just, moral society. The Jewish college students proudly celebrating Hanukkah on campus could be the Maccabees standing up to power in a vulnerable moment. I could go on and on.

Outraged by a couple of those? Me too, so I certainly don’t blame you. But when we try in 2023 to retroject ourselves into the Hanukkah myth, we have to understand that others will do the same thing, and we can’t claim with certainty who’s correct and who’s mis-using the story.

I was a history major in undergrad, and one of our required courses was Historiography. We learned about how history is curated, and how narrative and power influence not only the chronicling of events shortly after their occurrence but over time through historians who bring their own values and biases decades, centuries and millennia later. While this is hardly a revolutionary concept, I think it’s crucial to remember as we light our menorahs in the present day.

The complicated reality is that when it comes to ancient history, none of us has a monopoly on truth, because none of us were there. We engage in Hanukkah from the place of our own values and biases, and the way that we read the story — and read ourselves and others into it — reflects our understanding of the world.

Here’s what we know, or at least here’s what we know based on the sources and evidence we have up to this point: Once upon a time, a people faced oppression from an occupying power. Some people died rather than give up their values, some assimilated and some fought back. The people who fought back won; unfortunately it wasn’t happily ever after. The people who won oppressed others, including some of the very people they’d once fought to protect, and over time a certain amount of general assimilation came about anyway. Today, thousands of years later, we celebrate a temporary victory overshadowed by a made up miracle.

So what does that mean for our celebration? Should we just give up on Hanukkah? Should we try to re-engage our naivete and return to the simpler kids’ version of the story? I don’t think so.

Rather, I think what we have here is an opportunity to let more light in. I’ve been talking a lot, especially since October 7, about the “and” when it comes to Israel and Palestine. Many Jews are so locked into their beliefs that there’s virtually no room for additional narrative points. But what would happen if we opened ourselves up to multiple perspectives?

The menorah has eight candles, plus the shamash — nine lights all connected at the base but manifesting differently. Each flame flickers in a unique pattern and each candle has its own particular style of melting even if it looks the same as the one next to it. What a metaphor for our people. On these last days of Hanukkah, as we shine light in a world that needs all of it and then some, I invite us to consider not only our own story but the stories of the Jews on either side of us. May we have the courage to open ourselves up not only to our own light but the light of other stories. And may our collective sharing and listening make our world brighter.

Join Rabbi Emily Cohen and Hey Alma for a virtual candle lighting for peace, tonight at 8 pm ET. Sign up here.

Rabbi Emily Cohen

Rabbi Emily Cohen is a rabble-rousing rabbi and artist. She's usually found in Brooklyn with her partner, cat, and lots of coffee. You can keep up with her latest at www.rabbiemilycohen.com.

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