The Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which this year, uncharacteristically begins the night before Thanksgiving, is popularized by a rabbinic myth. The myth tells of a cruse of oil lasting seven days beyond its expected usage; the oil’s account appears tucked away in the Talmud.
As much as you dig and “drill” though the Bible, you won’t find the myth there. It’s not in the Apocrypha literature either. Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because the primary message of Chanukah has little to do with oil.
If anything, the eight-day celebration of Chanukah serves to remind all of us — Jew and non-Jew alike — that religious identity is bolstered, and assimilation is slowed, the most recent Pew study on Jewish life in America not withstanding, when religions — all religions — help foster an environment based on open-minded, intelligent discussion, conviction and debate.
During the brief rule of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E., countless Jews adopted Greek culture and thought — Hellenism, as it became known. Within the Jewish community living in Israel, the Greek ruler became so popular that newborn babies were not uncommonly named after him. To express their allegiance to Greek ways of life, scores of Jewish men went so far as to undergo painful procedures to mask the indelible marks of their circumcision.
What differentiated Alexander the Great — and ultimately endeared him to the Jewish community — was his lack of religious coercion. His theological openness and acceptance gave rise to the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek: the Septuagint. His un-manipulative religious attitude embodied 18th century Enlightenment principles thousands of years before its time.
Ironically, had Alexander’s policy of noncoercive religious acceptance continued, the Jews and Judaism might have simply assimilated away, never again to be heard from. More ironic still, had the Jews fully assimilated, highly likely, Christianity and later Islam would have never been conceived.
The Greek Syrian ruler, Antiochus IV, god incarnate, as he referred to himself, came to power 150 years after Alexander’s death. He instituted policies that were completely opposite of Alexander’s.
Religious coercion and bullying, strong-armed tactics and violence exemplified Antiochus’ leadership methodologies. Simply stated, it was his way or death. Under his watch, Jewish practice was outlawed, and the religious and political nerve center for the Jews, at the time, the Temple in Jerusalem, was ransacked and rendered invalid for Israelite priestly use.
So oppressive was Antiochus, a Jewish civil war erupted. Using guerrilla tactics, a group called the Maccabees waged battle against the oppressive policies instituted by the Greek-Syrians. But the Maccabees didn’t stop there. They also fought against fellow Jews who openly adopted Greek culture and ways of life.
The Maccabees fought for religious tolerance, so long as it was in compliance with their religious understanding and practice. While their military tactics and goals were different, functionally they were not dissimilar from the Greek-Syrian conquerors against whom they fought. Neither the Greek-Syrians nor the Maccabees embraced the open, noncoercive atmosphere created by Alexander the Great; neither side allowed for unencumbered religious scrutiny and open debate.
Theologically, Chanukah is insignificant, yet its historical lesson is of supreme importance not just to the Jew, but also to all religious faiths. When more deeply understood, the eight-day holiday challenges all of us who take religion seriously to continually provide open forums where level-headed, critical discussion is welcomed — indeed encouraged.
I know as a Jew and a rabbi, if we cannot provide compelling reasons to our own flock to be Jewish, then it is we, the leadership and the committed laity, who must first assess where we’ve gone wrong. It’s both reductionist and simplistic to think that the tug away from a spiritually disciplined life is primarily the result of countervailing ideas and popular trends permeating our culture.
For all spiritual seekers, threats of assimilation are scary and profoundly challenging precisely because they make us look within; they make us scrutinize our own religious principles; they challenge us with hard hitting, often unanswerable, painful questions.
It is far easier to live cloistered away, removed from the temptation of secular life and the difficulty that comes from meaningful religious interaction and struggle. It is far more challenging and infinitely more problematic when religiously observant people are asked to address the shortcomings found within their own faith systems.
So, as you sit down to enjoy your Thanksgiving meals, and given the once-in-a-lifetime intersection between these two great festive holidays, Chanukah and Thanksgiving, ponder this: Chanukah, which is celebrated by lighting candles on an eight-branched candelabrum, teaches that religious seekers of all faiths need not surrender to the darkness found in our world. Indeed, healthy religion can bring much needed light into an otherwise sterile, gloomy universe. But it can only do so when it is presented in a manner that is open to diverse opinion, and respectful debate; much like what was encouraged during the brief reign of Alexander the Great some 2,300 years ago