The facts of Chanukah barely resemble the story we were told as children. Instead of being a straightforward struggle for religious freedom in the face of a foreign emperor, the messy history shows a complicated civil war between theocratic priests using guerilla tactics and Hellenized Jews seeking to integrate Judea into the empire as a polis. This conflict only kicked into high gear when Antiochus of the Seleucid Greeks picked a side. It was only then that the war took on anti-imperial and religious freedom tones we associate with it today. And the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days and nights? Barely an afterthought in the texts, if mentioned at all.
At first glance, Chanukah speaks of threats in our past, not our present. American Jews are not under threat from a foreign emperor, but rather we are fellow-citizens in a super-power. Threats to religious freedom are mostly foreign to American Jews, even if anti-Semitism is not, but the rise of Islamaphobia is an uncomfortably close parallel. But since November 8th, the specter of our own bloody history has returned to haunt us, reminding us that the safety we took for granted was illusory after all.
Donald Trump is no foreign emperor; even if his rise was aided by a foreign power, the man is all too American, as is the bigotry and bombast he brings to the table. He is nonetheless our generation’s Antiochus, in that he is a symbol for the repressive, the regressive, and the sum of all that our society finds loathsome. A symbol, but not the cause.
The Maccabees are the heroes of the story, though I would caution folks to be a bit critical as well. For example, keep away from guerilla tactics, and please don’t attempt to set up a theocratic state. Both are, at the very least, against the law. However, recall the insert we add in the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon during this holiday— we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, a small group against a manifold, and the weak over the strong. These were some incredibly long odds, and the Maccabees beat them. That’s a pretty inspiring message for the darkest of days, whether your battle is something personal, or something collective.
The pinnacle of the Chanukah story is the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the olive oil that lasted for eight days, though there was only enough for one. The height of the triumph of the Chanukah story is about the ability to renew, and to spread light. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is a notion in Judaism that we are supposed to leave the world better than we found it. What better way to do that than to renew, rededicate, and shine a light in the dark? We do that literally when we light the menorah/chanukiah in the evenings. But we can also do that metaphorically, by inspiring and uplifting each other, and by leaving the world better than we found it.
In the coming years, that will be quite the challenge. Our communities are often divided, among both religious fractures and political ones, especially post election. It’s a lot harder to figure out who the “bad guy” is when the disagreements range all over your Shabbat table, and things may feel like they are spinning out of control. But when has the world ever been simple? Even the Chanukah story is more complicated than it first appears, which is about a divided Jewish community whose internal fractures never fully heal, as much as it is about a miraculous victory against all odds.
Image: The Maccabees by Wojciech Stattler. Via Wikimedia.