I’ve written before about the importance of studying, teaching, and celebrating real Jewish history, and this is especially important when it’s time for Hanukkah. As this year’s festival of lights closes, it seems to me that every year an article appears that is “shocked, shocked” to find out the truth, or presents the revelation that our simplistic version of the Maccabees or the miracle of the lights isn’t so simple after all:
– The Maccabees were fundamentalist imperialists, killing Jewish Hellenizers and forcibly converting (and circumcising!) other peoples. Yes, we give “thanks their light didn’t die,” but they were actually much less tolerant than the typical Roman polytheistic government from the same period.
– The miracle of the lights story does not appear anywhere in the Books of Maccabees written within a century of the revolt in 162 BCE, or in the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus. The Second Book of Maccabees describes Hanukkah as Sukkot out of season, while the First Book of Maccabees connects it with Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple in I Kings 8, and Josephus calls the holiday “Lights,” which suggests it could have been connected with a pre-existing Winter flame festival. After all, many human cultures light up in the depths of winter!
– Hanukkah in any form is entirely absent from the first collection of rabbinic teachings, the 3rd century Mishnah, and appears for the first time with the miracle story as an aside in the Talmud (completed 7th century CE) in the context of lighting candles for Shabbat:
What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislew [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. BT Berakhot 21b
Why are we surprised year after year? BECAUSE WE’RE TEACHING AND CELEBRATING IT WRONG. If all our kids hear year after year is the miracle of the lights, no wonder they believe it, even when they’re adults! If they imagine the Maccabees were a blend between the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union, rather than the Taliban, it’s only because we celebrate them unquestioningly and uncritically.
There are many Secular and Humanistic ways to approach the holiday: you can find some articles and services here, here and here. My Home Hanukkah Celebration is available at https://kolhadash.com/celebrations/hanukkah, and tries to incorporate these truths and more into a complete and still joyful and meaningful celebration.
As we look forward to next year, may we be less surprised to celebrate the truth of our people and their history and culture.