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