For another version of this as a podcast:
(Reprinted from the December 2013 bulletin of Temple Beth Abraham)
It's true that Chanuka is not a major holy day, like Shabbat or Pesach. It's not from the Torah. There are no restrictions in traditional Judaism. A weekday during Chanuka is a normal working day.
People say that Chanuka has only become important because of Christmas. It helps American Jewish kids not feel left out -- they get gifts too. Or, another view is that a winter holiday helps non-Jews understand us. "Oh, it's like a Jewish Christmas" makes Jews less strange.
So yes, it's true that the big deal about Chanuka is really a product of our modern experience in America.
Here's the "but." Chanuka, from the beginning, was precisely about Jews' relationship to a larger, dominant culture. What we experience today in America is another version of what the Jews of the Hellenistic empires experienced, more than 2150 years ago.
Chanuka commemorates the Jewish revolt in the Land of Israel against the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV from 165-162 B.C.E. Antiochus ruled part of the empire that had been created by Alexander the Great. Alexander had allowed the people he conquered to continue their local practices, as long as they participated in his military and supported the empire. Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion.
Before the persecution of Antiochus, some Jews were already arguing that Jews should abandon their ancient and old-fashioned ways, and take on all of the Hellenistic culture that was dominant through much of the world.
Hellenism was a version of ancient Greek culture. So, for instance, in the city of Jerusalem before Antiochus there was a gymnasium. That was a place for athletic competitions conducted in the nude. The Greeks believed that the human body was a form of perfection. Greeks believed that circumcision was an offense against this belief. So some Jews attempted a painful procedure to cosmetically undo a circumcision, so they could participate with others in Greek-style athletics.
From the earliest histories of the period, we see that there was a conflict within the Jewish community. How shall we live as Jews, within the wider world of Hellenism?
The people we call the Maccabees were a family known as "Hasmonean", a group of kohanim (religious leaders) who held out for Jewish tradition and authenticity. They led a military revolt against Antiochus, and eventually drove his forces out of Jerusalem. They restored the Beit Hamikdash and the traditional Jewish religious practices there, in the winter of 162 B.C.E. in the Jewish month of Kislev. Chanuka is the anniversary of that.
But the Maccabees' victory didn't mean that the Jews got rid of Hellenistic culture. Indeed, the Hasmonean leaders themselves ruled like Hellenistic monarchs. We know that Jews of that time had Hellenistic names. The Torah was known throughout the Jewish world in its Greek translation, the Septuagint.
And what we consider one of the most Jewish things -- analyzing, questioning, and debating the meaning of the Torah -- derives from the Greek and Roman traditions of philosophy and argumentation.
My point is that the Jews of the modern world, especially in America, face the same issues as the Jews of the Maccabees' time. American culture, after all, is the culture of the world, just as Alexander the Great had made Hellenism the culture of the whole ancient world. How shall we live as Jews, within the wider world of America or Western culture? How distinctive should we be, and what aspects of the wider culture will we take on?
This is one of the key themes of Chanuka, and it always has been. When the air is full of Christmas songs, and the frenzy of buying is in full swing, and we wonder what to say when someone wishes us "Merry Christmas" -- remember that the Jews of Judah Maccabee's time faced the same issues.
How distinctive should we be? What things in the wider culture we should embrace and what we should push away? These are questions to think about and talk about among family and friends, as we light the chanukiah and have our parties. They are some of the most important questions that Jews face today, especially in a community like ours.
And they make Chanuka, in a way, one of our most important holidays.
Chag Urim Same'ach -- A Joyous Festival of Lights,