Saturday, 20 December 2008

Chanukah: What Exactly is its Message?

The story of Chanukah is not solely about a military battle centuries ago between an imposing ruling class and a conquered Jewish nation. It is a celebration of the victory in an ancient battle against assimilation from which we are to draw strength in the Jewish people's continous battle against assimilation. Yet while this charge seems to be straightforward, the lesson of Chanukah actually is understood in many opposite ways

There are those who contend that Chanukah stands for the total rejection of Hellenism and any non-Torah, foreign ideas. There are others who contend an opposite lesson that Chanukah does not stand for the total rejection of Hellenism but for Hellenism to be incorporated, to the extent possible, under the banner of Torah. The enemy, within this viewpoint, wanted to make Torah secondary to Hellenism. The Maccabees thus fought for the opposite, for Torah to be paramount, but not for Hellenism, or the outside secular world, to have no voice. Each side brings arguments for their viewpoint, not just from the array of Torah statements and discussions on this issue, but from the Chanukah story itself.

The strange thing, though, is that the very holiday of Chanukah practiced today may have its own voice in this disagreement albeit in a somewhat different manner. Are we to reject the forces of assimilation fully or are we to assimilate ideas from outside of Torah that can enhance Torah? More basic, do we reject assimilation by totally rejecting it or do we fight assimilation by giving it some voice and then bringing it under the kanfei haShechina? Our natural inclination is most likely the former and we would expect Chanukah to stand for the total rejection of any incling of assimilation. The strange thing is what has happened to the very holiday of Chanukah -- it has become the most assimilated of Jewish holidays. How the world sees Chanukah, how many Jews see Chanukah, is vastly different to the halachic definition of the holiday. Chanukah has taken on all the trappings of the general season. Is this not ironic? The holiday that stands for the fight against assimilation has become the most assimilated Jewish holiday. Yet what would have happened if there was no Chanukah? How many Jews would have celebrated this season anyways without giving it any Jewish dimension? I could not believe it when I heard of people actually having Chanukah bushes -- but how many of these people would have had trees anyways in their homes because they wanted to get into the spirit of the season? The Chanukah bush actually, albeit on the lowest level, kept them at least making some connection to their Jewishness.

There is the question of the ideal. Torah only or Torah with general knowledge? That is a Torah machloket that has lasted the centuries. The story of Chanukah has been used to support both sides. But in the basic battle against assimilation -- you do what is necessary. Sometimes you have a strong stand and sometimes you just try to keep some Jewish consciousness. The celebration of Chanukah in our age represents this lesson to me.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Anonymous said...

Rav Shlomo Aviner has a great piece on his blog (well, it's not actually his but a student of his) showing how the Maccabees were definitely Dati Leumi:

In this light, it is easy to see what Chanukah is about. It is a rejection of assimilation, of giving equal weight to Hellenstic philosophies and Torah values, and also of the "We must not rock the boat, God will do everything for us if we just sit and watch" attitude that too much of the frum right wing likes to indulge in.

It's about Jews showing that they can be a nation like all others - an army, a government, etc - yet let that nation be guided by Torah principles instead of whatever the secular fad of the week happens to be.

It's also a holiday of fatty fried foods but that's a concession to the oil makers.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the poster and the person who commented.

According to the history of the period with the Seluccids and the world at that time, Hellenistic life was not just assimilation, it was total denial.

The king not just ransacked the temple, he descrated it. An idol of Zeus was established in the synagogue, people were told Torah could not be taught, bris was not allowed (this could be found out when men were forced to go to the gymnasium and appear naked before other men).

Finally pigs were sacrificed in the temple and the high priest was ordered to partake of it.

Many jews assimilated completly and lost their jewish identity, since Torah is the key to jewishness.

Yes, the victory by the macabees was important and impressive, but it only scratched the surface. Many probably felt forsaken and deserted by Hashem, the prophecies of desolation starting to come true.

The miracle of the oil burning for eight days should the jews of that time, that even though they were evil and that eventually terrible things would happen to them, that as long as people like the Macabees resisted anti Torah forces, and still tried to walk with Hashem. that they would be remembered by Hashem.

If the miracle had not happened, the religion would have eventually probably been absorbed by the tides of the world around them whether Hellenism or the newly arriving Christianity and there would have probably been no judiasm.

It was mans fighting back and embracing Hashem and the miracle of the lights that made Chanukah what it is. Yes, we have somewhat assimilated it like with giving gifts and family gathering etc.. but as long as we remember the miracle , that is the most important.