Saturday, December 12, 2009

Happy Chanukah!

By Nicholas Stix

Tonight is the second night of Chanukah, and so I wish all of my readers a Happy Chanukah. (Better late than never!) The Festival of Lights is not a major Jewish holiday, but it became really big in America. A beautiful gentile lady whose name I have long since forgotten explained the social significance of Chanukah to me in West Germany, in 1980. Although of German descent, she was the non-German-speaking girlfriend of an (Italian) American student in music from Stony Brook who had been given some money to spend a year at West Germany’s University of Tübingen, and write a composition for his Ph.D. The then-aspiring composer told me he was writing a composition that could not possibly be played by any real orchestra. He has since written many playable compositions.

I hope he finally made an honest woman of his wonderful lady at the time. (He’s presently married, but I’m not sure if she’s the wife.)

Anyway, she told me that when Jewish kids saw their Christian children getting all sorts of presents for Christmas, Jewish parents blew Chanukah up into a pseudo-Christmas. Made sense then, still does. I have never found anything theological contradicting her.

The article “Chanukah” in the Jewish Virtual Library, while not explicitly saying so, nevertheless strongly suggests that my old friend was right. It opens,

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.

The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated, adopting much of Hellenistic culture, including the language, customs, dress, etc., in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism).

They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated. According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

Chanukah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of the Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture….


Glaivester said...

Strangely enough, Chanukah is mentioned in the New Testament.

John 10:22-10:23:
And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.

(King James Version)

Nicholas Stix said...

Thanks for the history and religion lesson, G. I hadn't had any idea that that was the case.