Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy Hanukkah, America

It occurred to me the other day to wonder why more Americans don't celebrate Hanukkah. (Well, aside from the understandable goyische difficulty of not knowing how to spell or pronounce it.) Too many Americans know too little about this holiday, thinking it's just an eight-night-long Christmas with funky candelabras instead of trees. The tradition of the holiday should have a particularly American appeal. Hanukkah is actually a celebration of religious freedom, and a small band of patriot rebels defeating a tyrannical imperial power against long odds. Sound familiar? It's really a lot closer to the 4th of July than to Christmas.

Forget whatever you thought about eight nights of gift-giving, and flash back 2170 years ago. The Jews in Israel were living under the yoke of an increasingly tyrannical emperor in Syria named Antiochus. Antiochus was a political descendant of Alexander the Great, who had conquered most of the known world a century earlier. But after Alexander's death, his vast empire became subdivided into several regional empires, and the rulers after him slowly forgot that allowing conquered peoples to keep their own customs and traditions was a key ingredient for keeping the peace. Antiochus started issuing decrees requiring all of his subjects to worship his pagan gods and to abandon their own religions. The Jews were specifically required to go against their religion by eating pork, not circumsizing their children, and paying homage to Hellenistic gods like Zeus. Copies of the Torah were burned, and people following the Jewish Laws were killed. Antiochus ordered the sacred Temple in Jerusalem to be profaned by slaughtering pigs there and setting up an altar to Zeus.

In the midst of this situation, there arose a George Washington figure by the name of Judas Maccabeus, who along with his father Mattathias, and his brothers (known as the Maccabees), organized a guerilla resistance to defend the Jewish people and their faith. The Maccabees were greatly outnumbered and out-weaponed by the army of Antiochus (just like the American Revolutionary patriots against the British), but fought with the fierce conviction of knowing they had God and justice on their side:

But when they saw the army coming to meet them, they said to Judas: How shall we, being few, be able to fight against so great a multitude and so strong, and we are ready to faint with fasting today?
And Judas said: It is an easy matter for many to be shut up in the hands of a few: and there is no difference in the sight of the God of heaven to deliver with a great multitude, or with a small company:
For the success of war is not in the multitude of the army, but strength cometh from heaven. They come against us with an insolent multitude, and with pride, to destroy us, and our wives, and our children, and to take our spoils.
But we will fight for our lives and our laws:
And the Lord himself will overthrow them before our face: but as for you, fear them not.
1 Maccabees 3:17-22
The Maccabees routed several armies that Antiochus sent, and eventually won the war and established Jewish religious freedom for the next hundred years. The defining moment of the Maccabee triumph was when they were able to purify and rededicate the Temple, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, exactly two years to the day after the altar had been defiled. It was proclaimed that an eight-day celebration should be held on that date every year, and that is the origin of Hanukkah (a Hebrew word meaning "dedication").

It seems to me that while this holiday is traditionally a Jewish one, it celebrates themes of defending religious freedom that ought to resonate with all Americans. For Americans who are Christian, they may note that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (see John 10:22-23), and those who are Catholic or Orthodox will find the books of Maccabees included in their Bibles. But shouldn't any American of any faith understand the appeal of remembering rebels defending their right to worship according to their conscience?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank u for ur creative relation of Hanukah celebration to the American independance..

it helped open my eyes!!

i will remember it next time, and celebrate the spirit of independance on Hanukah..