Jewish Journal

Chanukah and adult faith

What does it take to celebrate a holiday with such violent roots?

by Danya Ruttenberg

Posted on Nov. 29, 2007 at 7:00 pm

A lot of people have trouble with Chanukah. I did, for years. I'd go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiyot while grumbling under my breath about how there was nothing here to celebrate. I'd light my Chanukiyah, but I'd only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I'd do my best not to enjoy it.

My problem then, and the problem of the people who this year have already informed me that they're all but going to boycott the holiday, is that the history of this particular celebration is, well ... complicated.

The war through which we celebrate Chanukah was, in part, a Jew-on-Jew civil war, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed the more assimilationist Hellenized Jews. The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die. The Jews who refused to do this were not very pleased with the ones who did.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Chanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus' large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The "Chanukah miracle" with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place -- the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud. It's not clear exactly when the story originated, but some scholars posit that the tradition originated when some of the rabbis still living under Roman rule figured it wouldn't be that clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. Instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Chanukah.

Why was it eight days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later -- but that doesn't explain why Chanukah became a separate holiday in subsequent years. Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian antiquity, and another notes that that's how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

All this, frankly, wasn't even enough to bother me -- not even the Jew vs. Jew part. That's nothing new as Jewish history goes. What happened afterwards, however, was really disturbing. After the Hasmoneans-Maccabees-zealots-heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation -- by force. First they attacked the non-Jews on their own Hasmonean turf. As it says in the Book of Maccabees, "they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel" (I Maccabees 2:46) as a way of Juda-izing them -- making them all Judean-like. (Again, note the irony -- they had been upset when the Hellenizers imposed their own cultural signifiers as a way of denoting allegiance.)

It got worse after that. Judah "Maccabee" "took [a non-Jewish filled] town, and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire" (I Maccabees 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus and other places in the land of the Philistines. There are a lot of stories: when the army "saw a tumultuous [wedding] procession with a great amount of baggage, they rushed on them from the ambush and began killing them ... the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge" (I Maccabees 9:39-41).

The people that were killed or circumcised here were innocent. I don't feel any more OK that it was "our guys" doing the unprovoked attacking and killing; that makes me feel worse, more uncomfortable, more upset, and I feel compelled to take some sort of responsibility for it.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long -- why I'd go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreidel. It wasn't really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don't know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting and meditating in front of my Chanukiyah every night, sitting and breathing with the candles as they burned, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing. It's not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it's that ... they didn't block me anymore.

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Chanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually -- Jews did some slaughtering there, too.

Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it's not an easy story. It certainly requires us not to take out our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by biblical criticism -- as though God changes just because our understanding of history might. As though God weren't bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it's God's fault that we're just getting some new information. As if it's God's fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God's Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God deserves. Is there any reason that I can't be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?Or, to put it another way, perhaps our question is not, "How can we possibly celebrate God and miracles if God didn't save our pure souls from the evil hands of others?" but, rather, "How might we celebrate God and miracles while acknowledging the many complex ways in which our own hands have impacted history?" How might our theology shift to accommodate the awareness that our miracles have sometimes had painful consequences for others? How might we now celebrate renewal, rededication and resanctification with a greater understanding not only of what it means to receive light, but also to give it out?

What might that mean about what we do in the world today, what action we take as unforgivable atrocities rage just outside our door? We leave our Chanukiyot in the windows of our houses to publicize the miracle that is God's ongoing manifestation in the world -- how might our behavior, our actions, similarly reflect our desire for all to partake of God's miraculousness?

We have to be honest about the history that's happened, to take responsibility for what has been done by Jewish hands and to use what's past to spark discussion and action about how to behave in our world today. We can and should embrace the rededication of our souls, hearts and minds on a spiritual level, and we should also use these tropes of rededication to look at the world at large, to see what has been defiled and how we can make it holy again. And maybe, after all, being able to move past a childlike faith into something more integrated and whole is, in itself, a sort of rededication, a resanctification -- in itself kind of a miracle.

Danya Ruttenberg (danyaruttenberg.net) is the author of the forthcoming "Surprised By God: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Religion" (Beacon Press, 2008) and editor of "Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism" (Seal Press) and a forthcoming book on Judaism and sex from NYU Press. She's in her last year of rabbinic training at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.

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