Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chanukah 5775

Back in the late 1960s, one of my more politically radical friends told me how his East European immigrant parents were Socialists and religiously non-observant, with the one exception of Chanukah, which they considered to be a people's holiday. For all its popularity, Chanukah, which begins this evening, is, of course, technically a minor Jewish holiday, based not on the Torah but on later events in Jewish history. Those events are recounted in the two Books of Maccabees, which, while not even included in the Jewish canon, thankfully remain in the Catholic one, thus giving us access to the inspiring story of Jewish resistance to imperial Seleucid efforts to forcibly Hellenize the people of Israel. The books of Maccabees recount the sad story of the suffering inflicted upon the people of Israel by their secularizing persecutors and the heroic history of resistance by a minority of Jews led by Judas Maccabeus and his priestly Hasmonean dynasty. It is easy to see how 19th and 20th-century Socialists might interpret it as primarily a "people's holiday" rather than a religious one, just as post-independence contemporaries might interpret it as primarily a patriotic holiday. (The photo shows U.S. President Harry Truman being presented with a chanukah menorah by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.)

Chanukah itself commemorates not so much the actual military conflict and eventual victory nor the subsequent Hasmonean empire - the last sustained experience of Jewish independence until 1948 - but rather the rededication of the Temple (after its sacrilegious profanation by the Gentiles) and the miracle of how the surviving one-day supply of Temple oil lasted for eight full days. The holiday is notably celebrated by the daily lighting of the Chanukah menorah, by eating food fried in oil (particularly potato pancakes - latkes), and playing dreidel. Some 60 years ago, when I was in kindergarten in public school, we had a chalk menorah on the blackboard and would "light" an additional "candle" each morning in class. (Obviously, that was before the tyranny of secularism tightened its grip on public education, thanks to various malicious Supreme Court decisions and other damage). 

It is not clear how Chanukah was celebrated in Jesus' time, but Jesus and his contemporaries certainly celebrated it. The Gospel of John - the New Testament book most attuned to the Jewish liturgical calendar - specifically says that Jesus was in Jerusalem, in winter, for the festival of the Dedication (John 10:22-23). Unlike Easter and Pentecost which are explicitly connected with their Old Testament antecedents, Christmas and Chanukah have no evident historical connection, even if both can be seen (indepently of each other) as instances of winter light festivals. On the other hand, the modern association of Christmas and Chanukah as gift-giving holidays probably owes more to commercial considerations than to any historic or religious parallelism. That said, were it not for the contemporary commercial association of Chanukah with Christmas, it is likely that most of us Gentiles would never even hear about Chanukah.

However that may be, it is a good thing that we do get to hear about this beautiful "people's holiday," rooted in Israel's struggle against a secularizing political establishment, which celebrates God's miraculously abiding presence among his people.

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