The Case Against Banning Hanukkah

The Festival of Lights can be easily interpreted as the festival of militant Jewish chauvinism; but it can also serve as a reminder of what we strive to contribute to the world.

Gil Cohen-Magen

With all of the recent controversies over what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state; with the perceived flourishing of a Jewish nationalist chauvinism in Israel; and in the face of racist Jewish terror targeting a school in which Jewish and Arabic children learn peacefully side by side; it’s time for Hanukkah, a festival easily interpreted as the festival of militant Jewish chauvinism.

I remember attending, many years ago, a public lighting of a hanukkiah in a park in Britain. In the small town where I grew up, this ceremony was one of the very few events at which the Orthodox and Reform communities would both take an active part, together. One year, both the Orthodox and Reform rabbis spoke. I don’t remember that happening again.

Up on this podium, the Reform rabbi lauded Hanukkah, and its lights, as a symbol for pluralism. The message seemed very apt as these two rabbis from different denominations stood side by side. But that’s not the Hanukkah story that I know – a tale of religious zealots who refused to be assimilated to Greek culture, and went to war, not just with the Greeks, but with Jews who dared to wear Greek clothes, and adopt Greek practices.

It was a religious war, in which Jews killed Jews because of doctrine and creed. Against that backdrop, the lights of Hanukkah are not easily transformed into a symbol of pluralism and love between Jews who disagree about theology.

In a particularly provocative piece of journalism, the late and great Christopher Hitchens once declared that Hanukkah should be banned. For him, it represented the victory of bloody-minded parochial Jews against the great cultural influences of the wider Greek world.

This straightforward version of the Hanukkah story presents the Hasmoneans as nationalistic chauvinists. And if it were the only viable interpretation of the holiday, and of the events leading up to it, then it wouldn’t be a festival that I could celebrate with a full heart.

I don’t think that the Reform rabbi was right to hail these eight days as a celebration of pluralism; but I don’t think that Hitchens was right either. Though it isn’t a festival about pluralism, I don’t think it’s a festival about small-minded religious insularism either, or a festival for fundamentalists.

We have to realize that the Hasmoneans were actually a middle way between two extremes. On the one hand, there were the Hellenists, who wanted to abandon Jewish distinctiveness and assimilate entirely into the dominant Greek culture. On the other extreme, there were zealots who wanted nothing to do with the levers of power, or political institutions, and wanted to run away from civilization altogether. This other extreme eventually gave rise to the Qumran sect, whose members lived as hermits in the desert and bequeathed to us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In an insightful response to Hitchens, Shaye J.D. Cohen points out that the Hasmoneans were, at least in some sense, the moderates. Of course, they wanted to preserve Jewish distinctiveness, and were ready to fight for it. They were not out and out pluralists. For them, assimilationism was wrong, and their opposition to it was worth dying and killing for. But they weren’t rejectionists, like the hermits in the desert. They believed that we need to be a part of this world, involved in international relations, and all of the political intrigue and cultural dialogue that goes with that.

I would add the following to Cohen’s argument. Why is Hanukkah eight days long? The famous reason is that a one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Temple. But that reason only arrives in our texts by the time of the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 21b), and does not explain why God made the miracle last eight days. Why not nine? Why not seven? Earlier texts give a more fundamental reason. According to the Book of Maccabees, the Hasmoneans didn’t have a chance to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in the Temple because it was in Greek hands. To make up for the missed holiday, they held an eight day celebration once the Temple was liberated, in the dark of winter (II Maccabees 10:6-7).

According to Jewish mythology, there are only 70 nations. On Sukkot, we bring sacrifices for them all; to atone for their sins on their behalf, and to pray, on their behalf, for rain in their lands. According to the prophet Micah, in the end of days, the gentiles will keep their distinctive ways (Micah 4:5); but we also believe that they will all adopt Sukkot, a festival for all peoples (Zechariah 14:16).

Rabbi Yochanan said (tractate Sukkot 55b) that had the nations of the world realized what blessings the temple brought them, they would have never destroyed it.

Jewish particularism can so easily stray into chauvinism and xenophobia. But a Jewish particularism that sees the Jewish people as playing a particular role (not because we’re better than anyone else, but because each nation has its own distinctive role to play); and a particularism that views our role as striving to bring blessings to the entire world, is not a particularism that quickly collapses into a fundamentalism. It is a particularism, motivated by a universal concern for all of mankind.

The Jewish people have a distinctive voice in the conversation of cultures, and a distinctive role to play in healing the wounds of this world. But that particularism doesn’t mean that we have to be closed off to all outside influences; and it certainly shouldn’t lead to a feeling of superiority or chauvinism. To believe that you’re chosen to serve the world is different from thinking yourself chosen to rule over it.

Hanukkah is about preserving the distinctive identity of the Jewish people so that we can continue to celebrate Sukkot, and bring blessings to the entire world. Hanukkah has us celebrating the survival of our distinctive culture, for eight days, to remind us of the service that we strive to render to the entire world.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.