December 14, 2006
Chanukah holds important lesson for all faiths
The story appears only in the Talmud, not the Bible or even the Apocrypha literature.
In fact, the primary lesson of Chanukah has nothing to do with oil at all.
If anything, the eight-day festival serves to remind Jew and non-Jew alike that religious identity is assured and assimilation stemmed only when religion develops out of an environment based on love and celebration, intelligent debate and conviction.
During the brief rule of Alexander the Great (336-323 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, newborn babies were often named after him. To express their allegiance to Greek ways of life, scores of Jewish men went so far as to undergo painful operations to diminish and remove the indelible mark of circumcision.
What differentiated Alexander the Great -- and ultimately endeared him to the Jewish community -- was his lack of religious oppression. His theological openness and acceptance gave rise to the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek: the Septuagint.
His unmanipulative religious attitude embodied 18th century Enlightenment thinking thousands of years before its time. Ironically, had Alexander's policy of noncoercive religious debate and acceptance continued, the Jews and Judaism might have simply assimilated away, never again to exist.
One hundred and fifty years after Alexander's death, the Greek Syrian ruler, Antiochus IV, Epiphanies -- god incarnate -- as he referred to himself, instituted policies that were completely opposite of Alexander's.
Religious coercion, bullying and violence exemplified Antiochus' methodologies. Under Antiochus, Jewish practice was outlawed, and the religious nerve center for the Jews, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was ransacked and rendered invalid for priestly ritual use.
So oppressive was Antiochus, a Jewish civil war erupted. Using guerrilla tactics, a group called the Maccabees waged battle against the strong-armed methods instituted by Antiochus and the Greek-Syrians. But the Maccabees didn't stop there. They also fought against fellow Jews who openly adopted Greek culture and philosophical thought.
Yes, the Maccabees fought for religious tolerance, so long as it was in compliance with their religious understanding and application. While their military goals were different, functionally the Maccabees were very similar to the Greek-Syrian conquerors. Neither the Greek-Syrians nor the Maccabees embraced the open, noncoercive atmosphere created by Alexander the Great; neither position allowed for a middle ground.
Theologically, Chanukah is insignificant, yet its historical lesson is of great importance 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 discussion and theological diversity is encouraged.
I know as a Jew and as a rabbi, if we cannot provide sufficient reasons for Jews to maintain their religious identity, then it is we who are at fault, not the countervailing ideas and popular trends, be they religious or secular.
For all spiritual seekers, threats of assimilation are scary and profoundly challenging precisely because it makes them look within; it makes them scrutinize their own religious beliefs and practices.
It is far easier to live cloistered away, removed from the temptation of secular life and the challenges that come from meaningful religious interaction and questioning. It is far more difficult and infinitely more problematic when religiously observant people are asked to address the shortcomings found in their own faith system.
Chanukah, which is celebrated ritually by lighting candles on an eight-branched candelabra, teaches that religious seekers need not surrender to the darkness found in the world. For certain, healthy religion can bring much needed light to an otherwise sterile universe.
But it can only do so when presented in a manner that is open to diverse opinion and debate, much like that which was encouraged and fostered during the brief, historic reign of Alexander the Great some 2,300 years ago.