About a month ago I was ordering a latte at a local coffee shop. The barista, a 40ish year-old man, asked if I minded a quick question about Judaism.
“Of course” I responded, always excited to field questions about all things Jewish.
“Well, I am not very religious and I even missed the high holidays for the last few years, but I really want to practice Hanukkah this year!”
“That’s great!” I replied! “What do you need to know?”
“I know that there is a certain time that the candles need to be lit and then a minimum time length that the candles need to burn for. What are they exactly?”
And thus started my 20 minute Hilchot Chanukkah (laws of Hanukkah) conversation with a man who almost certainly eats on Yom Kippur, does nothing to celebrate Shabbat, and who has probably never heard of the holiday Shavuot. I just love Hanukkah!
The truth is that Hanukkah is simultaneously the most and least Jewish holiday on the calendar.
It is this minor Jewish holiday - arguably the least important in the Jewish calendar by a multiplicity of criteria - that is celebrated by over 80% of American Jews. A number unmatched by any other point on the Jewish calendar. As I traced here in Hanukkah: The Jewish Christmas, Hanukkah
has become subjected to and has been refashioned by the same type of American consumerism that brought us the modern day Christmas season. While the historical story of Hanukkah deals with religious wars, temples, and political dynasties - the modern day American Hanukkah with our gift giving and public candle lighting knows nothing of the sort.
The chief irony is that the true story of Hanukkah is actually a polemic against the type of assimilated Judaism practiced by the majority of American Jews practicing Hanukkah. It is during this one week in the winter that largely secular and irreligious Jews will gather to light candles while recounting a G-rated, children’s version of an R-rated Hanukkah story. While many think that the Hanukkah story was a unified Jewish triumph against Greek anti-semitism, the reality is much more complex.
Spoiler alert: the war of Hanukkah was much more of a civil war between religious Jews and Hellenized/assimilated Jews than between the Jews and the Greeks. The beloved Maccabees probably spent much more time fighting and killing “secularized” Jews than Greeks and would (rightly so) make even the more traditional modern Jewish communities deeply uncomfortable to say the least (see here for more
In this light (no pun intended), Hanukkah is the least Jewish holiday on the calendar. The watered down, paradoxical nature of American Hanukkah becoming a largely secular and consumerism-based holiday is awkward and contradictory at best. Accordingly, the fact that this is the time of year that inspires a plurality of Jews to do something Jewish can be seen as downright sad. This is certainly the view that I grew up holding, and would argue is the view of much of the Orthodox community.
But by this same token Hanukkah may then be the most Jewish holiday on the calendar - representing the best that Judaism has to offer and subsequently making this the ideal celebration of Jewishness. Let me explain!
The best of religions operate within a dialectic between tradition and innovation - and in this regard I believe that Judaism holds primacy - Hanukkah being an exemplary case study. If one searches through the Talmud looking for Hanukkah, they will notice something fascinating. There is no tractate about Hanukkah! Purim, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Sukkot, etc. all get their own tractate - but Hanukkah is relegated to a few short pages within tractate Shabbat. What’s more, when one does look at the pages dealing with Hanukkah something else is strange. There is no mention about Hanukkah being about a religious war, rather the rabbis spent these few pages talking about some previously unheard of miracle of candles lasting for 8 days.
This act of censorship is one that has not gone unnoticed by Jewish thinkers. All signs point to the fact that the rabbis of the Talmud purposely obscured the military and religious fundementalist aspect of Hanukkah, instead opting to focus on a universal and uniting message of lights.
The evolution of Hanukkah into what it is and what it means today for much of the American Jewish community can then be seen as the most Jewish act possible. The taking of a historical event turned tradition which is then subsequently shaped and reshaped by generations of Jews as they attempt the timeless act of balancing tradition and modernity - is the story of Judaism.
So when my barista wants to celebrate Hanukkah because in his words, this is the “most important Jewish holiday” all I can do is give him encouragement, wish him luck, and see if he ever has free time to talk about Judaism more in depth. Possibly over another latte.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entries were selected as one of the three best for the third and fourth quarters of 5779. You can find them on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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