The Maccabees make complicated heroes. Yes, they stood up for being Jewish against forced assimilation to Greek culture. And yes, they achieved Jewish independence for a hundred years, a model for Jewish self-defense and dignity that resonates even today. At the same time, they were religious fanatics, the haredim of their day: the first person killed in the revolt was a Jew participating in Greek religion, and the Maccabee kingdom made the nations they conquered convert to Judaism (including circumcision!). We who enjoy to modern, secular culture, we who like a clean shave and “immodest” clothing, we have more in common with Hellenized Jews the Maccabees hated than with the Maccabees themselves.
Hanukkah is a complicated holiday. The miracle of the lights story first appears in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is NOT in the histories of Josephus or First or Second Maccabees, which were written much closer in time to the Maccabean revolt. In fact, the Books of Maccabees give alternative reasons why the holiday is 8 days long: a Temple dedication like Solomon’s in I Kings, or Sukkot out of season. There may even be an earlier lighting holiday connected to the winter solstice, a common human experience not unique to the Jews, buried behind it all. Most complicated of all, for people who have become less religious, and who may have family they no longer connect with, a season of celebration and joy can bring loneliness and sadness instead.
What can we do with this history and this holiday? There are many human reasons to celebrate light fighting darkness that also apply to those on their own derech: the light of knowledge fighting superstition, the light of inspiration helping us move forward, the light given by human discovery to improve the world. Even though the Maccabees and today’s traditionalists try to impose their Judaism on others, the fact that Jews are still arguing about ways to be Jewish makes us part of a deeply rooted tradition. And, even without miracles or mitzvot, many of us value Jewish survival, Jewish distinctiveness, and the richness of unique Jewish expressions of the unique Jewish experience, our family’s subset of the human experience.
The most important symbolism Hanukkah can provide to those “off the derech,” on their own derech, is the role they can play. When the shamash is used to light other candles, it keeps burning just as brightly, and together even more light shines. We can be the shamash to others, to our community, to people in need, even to ourselves through difficult times. The secular Israeli Hanukkah song “Anu Nos’im Lapidim – We are Carrying Torches,” puts it very well in its last stanza:
Ness lo karah lanu –
Pach shemen lo matzanu.
Basela chatzavnu ad dam –
No miracle befell us –
No cruse of oil found by us.
We quarried rock until we bled –
And then there was light!
Rabbi Chalom was ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2001, and received his PhD in Near Eastern Studies – Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies concentration from the University of Michigan. In addition to his work with the Institute, Rabbi Chalom is the rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago, Illinois. Contact Rabbi Chalom at email@example.com or 847-602-4500or read his blog on http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com.