This was my column in the December 2019 bulletin for Temple Beth Abraham:
I love Chanukkah. I love the row of chanukkiot, the special menorahs, set up by the window for each member of the family. Just the simplicity of light and then a bit more light every day, with a bit of color, and before you know it the difference between one candle for each and eight. Hope, lights kindling more lights, a simple melody for blessings with voices of different ages.
What I have really come to love about Chanukkah is that the story itself is actually about having a holiday when other people are having another holiday. That’s not a new thing, an American thing, even a Judaism-and-Christianity thing. It’s way back at the beginning. Chanukkah, like Purim (stay tuned in a few months), is the festival about us.
The simplest Chanukkah story is about King Antiochus outlawing Judaism and defiling the Temple in Jerusalem, until a band of Jewish priest-warriors said no, fought a battle for four years, drove out the king’s forces and purified the Temple. A story of religious freedom instead of tyranny, and self-determination in our land, and miracle.
Around that story is another story, and it’s longer. It starts in the 300s B.C.E., with Alexander the Great. He led a military campaign through the Middle East and established an enormous empire from Europe to Persia to Africa, including the Land of Israel. His conquests also brought a culture, the Greek-infused Hellenism that changed the language people spoke as well as art, architecture, athletics and ideas.
Jews, both in and out of Judea, wrestled with what it meant to live in a Hellenistic world. In the century or so after Alexander the Great, the Jews in Egypt translated the Torah into Greek, a version that is known as the Septuagint. They didn’t speak or know very much Hebrew and needed a Torah in their own language.
One of my favorite ancient Jewish stories is a legend about the writing of the Septuagint. The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates is a Jewish text that invents a different origin for the Greek version of the Torah. The Letter of Aristeas says that the Hellenistic emperor in Alexandria, Egypt, heard that there was a book he was missing for his great library of all the world’s wisdom: the Torah.
In order to complete his library, he would need it translated into Greek. So he sent for a group of seventy scholars to come down for Jerusalem, and he threw them a kosher banquet. This story, written by a Jew in Greek, even presents the scholars as though they were excellent Greek philosophers!
By the time of Antiochus and the Maccabees, a lot of Jews were wondering whether they needed Hebrew, or even Judaism (much of it's opening chapters are different than our version, another story). There was social pressure to become like other people. Even the Jerusalem priests took on Greek names, like we generally have English ones. There was a fierce debate within the Jews of the time about how much to integrate with others, and how much Hellenism to integrate into Judaism.
So while Antiochus was a madman and a tyrant, his rise was also the catalyst for getting all of this into the open. In fact, one of the oldest historical books we have about Chanukkah spends most of its time talking about these debates among Jews, about our relations with others and about how much Greek culture to bring into Jerusalem.
Even the date of the start of Chanukkah is connected to these themes. We celebrate beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. The 25th of the final month of the solar year was, in the surrounding cultures, a pagan holiday already. Both Jews and later Christians took that festival of light period from others, and made it a symbol of our own lights. In the very act of claiming that day as our own, we remember that Jews of the time battling for their own culture.
The Hellenistic world that was Alexander the Great’s legacy is an analogy for our world, particularly for the Jewish community in America. So it’s absolutely right that we end up presenting ourselves to others, to the majority, at this time of year – explaining things, being ambassadors, talking about what connects us through the winter festivals and what is unique about us.
So embrace that. Be Chanukkah. Get ready when people ask you about Chanukkah and Judaism. Be ready with more than “Chanukkah isn’t our Christmas” -- your favorite thing about being Jewish, your favorite mitzvah or custom or story or idea. Your story of why and how you are Jewish in this modern-day version of a Hellenistic world.
Then you’ll be the candle that lights another candle. You can be a candle of pride that shines, and a candle that lights more understanding among other people who look at us, as we glow uniquely at this time of year.
Chag Urim Samayach – A Joyous Festival of Lights,