Voices of M-A: The True Meaning of Hanukkah
If asked to name a Jewish holiday, the average American would probably think of Hanukkah first, perhaps tentatively followed by Yom Kippur. As a Jew, this phenomenon always struck me as odd; as Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is among the least significant and the least spiritual. It is a historical and nationalist holiday, not a biblical one, based on the story of the Maccabees and their revolt against the oppression of the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC. Yet the common knowledge surrounding it seems to be limited to a handful of vague ideas which have given way to some ridiculous misconceptions.
First of all, Hanukkah is by no means a “Jewish Christmas.” Its apparent significance today stems from the efforts of American Jews to integrate and to be accepted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Traditionally, children would receive some coins, called “gelt” in Yiddish, with which to play dreidel, but this practice morphed into gift-giving as American Jews assimilated into the Christian-dominated mainstream culture and as a result of commercialization of Christmas. This cultural crossover goes both ways; some of the most popular Christmas songs, including “White Christmas,” “Let it Snow,” “Santa Baby,” and “Winter Wonderland,” were written by Jews, and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ was invented by Robert L. May, a Jewish employee of Montgomery Ward, as a marketing ploy to sell coloring books at Christmastime.
Before continuing, I should note that most statements starting with “Jews believe…” are oversimplifications, if only because there is such diversity of opinion and belief within the faith itself. Jews joke that in order to get the number of opinions in a room full of Jews, you count the Jews, add one, and square it. So, the Jewish consensus on social issues, such as homosexuality, tend to be nonexistent as the range of opinion from sect to sect and from person to person is so vast. However, there are some key differences between Judaism and Christianity that most Jews agree upon.
The Pirkei Avot, as well as the Talmud, Neviim (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings), and other assorted texts grouped into the Jewish Apocrypha, make up the host of religious literature that contributes to the Jewish worldview. Critical discussion and syllogistic argumentation are such central values in Judaism that we literally transcribed the arguments of rabbis into the 40 volume Talmud. The idea that the entirety of Judaism is confined to the Torah/Old Testament ignores the millennia of development and history that have occurred since then. For example, the Christian idea of life beginning with conception does not apply in Judaism; potential life is regarded as less valuable than the existing life of the mother, a commentary discussed in depth in the Talmud but hardly at all in the Torah.The feature of Judaism most important to me is its character as an “ethno-religion.” That is, because of historical and religious influences, Judaism is a cultural and ethnic identity as well as a spiritual one. Rituals and traditional foods dominate Jewish holidays, so that observance works whether one believes in G-d or not.
When I arrived at M-A, having spent middle and elementary school in the bubble of a Jewish Day School, I noticed a widespread derision for spirituality and religion, mainly directed at Christianity, but also critical of theists in general. I could relate to the aversion towards dogmatic organized religion and to the emphasis on secular, pragmatic perspectives, but found myself indignant when classmates couldn’t understand my obligation to miss events or school days for holidays or my reluctance to devour cheeseburgers. All of this emerged at a time in my life when I was already beginning to question my faith, belief in G-d, and spiritual connection to my heritage.
These modifications to some outdated modes of thought represent one portion of a broad spectrum, ranging from the Reconstructionists to the Ultra-Orthodox, and, as I mentioned earlier, the last few millennia have been pretty argumentative within the Jewish community. The differences between these extremes have resulted in fairly dramatic dissension within the international Jewish community, such as the discussion of whether women should be allowed to pray, read from the Torah, or wear prayer shawls at the Western Wall in Jerusalem (as of now none of this is permitted). Other ongoing intra-Jewish issues include the centuries old (so, relatively young) contention between Ashkenazim (Eastern-European), Sephardim (Iberian), and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews and the slow but steady acceptance of Beta Israel, the community of Ethiopian Jews that renewed contact with the rest of the Jewish community in the 1970s.
Because of the miracle of the oil, traditional Hanukkah foods include latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiot (sort of jelly donuts) fried in oil, and for each night the oil in the Temple burned, another candle is added to the hanukkiah (like a menorah, but with eight branches instead of seven). The four letters on the dreidel stand for the four words in the phrase “nes gadol haya sham” or “a great miracle happened there.” On its surface, Hanukkah seems like another one of those Jewish “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” holidays, or like an excuse for Jews to exchange presents in December, but the history offers a broader lesson about the value of preserving one’s identity when assimilation seems like the path of least resistance. Though the Maccabees proved to be zealots, they demonstrated the importance of a balance and mutual respect between minority and majority culture, a lesson that still applies aptly in a society as diverse as modern day America.