The following is an exposition of an idea quoted in the Daily News (December 25, 2005)
I’ve always found it interesting how Hannukah, a relatively late Rabbinic enactment, has become of the most widely recognized and observed Jewish holidays. To be sure, its proximity to Christmas has helped; Hannukah falls around the most celebrated holiday worldwide and comparisons or connections between the two are understandable. Thanks to an increasingly politically correct climate, Menorahs are often displayed in more ecumenical seasonal displays, further increasing Hannukah’s exposure.
But I would also suggest that it is Hannukah’s intrinsic messages and meanings which inspire countless generations. Compared to other Jewish holidays, the primary themes of Hannukah are not exclusively relevant to religious Jews, but are universally fundamental and basic to the larger population as well.
The first event Hannukah commemorates is the miracle in the Temple where one jar of oil lasted for eight days (B. Shabbat 21b). Much has been written about this miracle elsewhere, but at its most basic religious Hannukah reminds us of God’s role as a provider especially in our time of need. In the times then we are seemingly lacking, we can turn to the primary source of abundance in the world. Even for the skeptics there is meaning in remembering the miracle. By actively commemorating the event through lighting the candles, people actively assert their connection to a heritage where such miracles were possible.
In addition to the miracle of the oil, Hannukah also recognizes the twofold victory over the Greeks: militarily and ideologically. The military victory over the Greeks reminds us that religious freedom is not always guaranteed and that we must be vigilant in its defense. The Greeks waged war against the Jewish people seeking to destroy the people for their beliefs and in order to survive, the Jews were forced to fight to defend themselves. To this day, violent religious oppression continues. Even the the advancements in today’s society, religious persecutions are still prevalent throughout the world with many countries oppress religious believers. By recalling the military victory, Hannukah reminds us that there are times we do have to fight for our faith, and more importantly, that the faith is worth the fight.
Of course, fighting for one’s beliefs does not always constitute taking up arms. The ideological challenges of Hellenism were not directed against the physical nation, but for the hearts and minds of the people. Instead of threatening the faithful, Hellenism offered an alternative enlightened society. With this new alternative, the burden was placed on the Jews to retain their antiquated traditions or to embrace the new culture with all its modernizations. Until relatively recently, culture generally dictated that religion and secular society were mutually exclusive. Believing in the “wrong” faith or ideology often limited a person’s occupational or social possibilities. While there has been much progress in recent years – e.g. the rise of political correctness – there are still latent biases (or explicit for the non PC) against some religious beliefs or practices. Despite the rhetoric of pluralism, elite society continues to discriminate against ideas or practices based in religion. In order for one’s voice to be heard in many forums one often needs to excise any religious context.
On the other hand, by prominently displaying the Hannukah Menorah in the house, doing so near a visible window, we reaffirm to ourselves and to others our right to be religious believers even while living in a secular world. Hannukah is one of the rare instances when we are mandated not only to observe an action, but to actively publicize doing so. Unlike more private or communal rituals, by lighting the Menorah, we are proudly announcing our religious commitment to whomever passes by. At the same time, the Menorah is not a political symbol or a slogan to be displayed at public rallies. Despite the mandate to publicize the miracle, the commandment to light the Menorah is not for the synagogue or other public venues, but specifically for the household – “ish uveito” (B. Shabbat 21b). By keeping Menorah in the house we demonstrate that our faith is not only for display but an essential part of how we live our lives. And by lighting near a window we assert our right to live this life of faith.
While I am writing from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, it should not be too difficult to see how some of these ideas could resonate with non-religious population. For those who are not actively affiliated, even the tenuous historical connection to a miracle is enough to maintain a Jewish identity. And even those who personally do not believe can appreciate the celebration of overcoming bias or religious oppression. Hannukah endures not because it is a Jewish alternative to Christmas, but because at the most basic, practical, and human levels, it captures the spirit of what it really means to live as a Jew in a non-Jewish world.