What is the meaning of Chanukah?

Just after Thanksgiving, someone I know started a post about how to celebrate Chanukah and its story of military victory with children without cringing.

My first reaction was — in my head — “Do you cringe at Thanksgiving? Do you cringe at how veterans are treated on Veteran’s Day? Do you cringe on Presidents’ Day?” It seems to me that most of our holidays are about the joys of the ruling class, plus token holidays for groups that lobbied to be recognized – Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day/now Indigenous People’s Day…” My first and a half reaction was, don’t cringe; instead pay attention to the tension.

My second, more thoughtful reaction was, “What meaning does this holiday hold that is suitable for celebration with children?”

What does the text say about this holiday?

Raphael Magarik went back to the text, the two books of Maccabees. He makes a number of good points about what one can take from the origin stories of this holiday.

There are two books of Maccabees, likely by two different authors. They show two different facets of the holiday. One book talks of military victory over Greek rule. The other talks of the miracle when the Temple in Jerusalem is rededicated. The authors do not agree at all on the meaning of the Maccabee rebellion.

“One makes a point of mocking people who observe God’s law and get killed for it; the other intensely valorizes martyrdom” writes Magarik.

“…The point, as I take it, is: we know of no version of Hannukah which was not infinitely contentious among the Jews who were celebrating it. There is no pure, original holiday to get back to. ‘One’ holiday was not transformed into ‘something else’ (say, a military holiday into a religious miracle), because the holiday always contained within it multitudes of contradictions. Difference and contest go all the way down. Whatever one thinks of a present-day desire for a singular Jewish community in ideological lockstep, it is not a desire that has anything to do with our earliest records of Hannukah.”

In short, what does the text say? It says “Fight against assimilation” or maybe “Fight against tyrannical leadership (the Greeks)” or maybe “Fight for religious autonomy.” It also says, “Be pious and miracles happen,” or perhaps “Being pious is more important than being a fighter.” In the two versions, the religious freedom and the miracle are not regarded the same way. There is tension within the community that lived through this rebellion. There was political fallout from the Maccabee (Hasmonean) dynasty. It is just another place where two Jews will have three opinions; this one is a bit over two thousand years old.

What is there to celebrate?

Depending on the age of the child, there are key points that are helpful to a Jewish child understanding this celebration:

  1. Jews are a minority people. We live in countries with people with different religions. Most of the time, someone with another religion is in charge. We get to still be Jewish and that is a good thing. Let’s celebrate.
  2. It is a dark time of the year. We, as Jews, have this holiday with candles. Other people in America have holidays this time of year that have candles and lights. Our candles celebrate that long ago, there was a miracle where sacred oil lasted eight days, when it was only a one-day supply. Because of this, we light eight candles, and we also eat fried (oily) food.

When children get older, they can learn about the tensions of being a member of a minority religion which has its roots in a disputed land. It is no more complicated than being an American on Thanksgiving.

Final word

I again quote Raphael Magarik, who quotes Rav Yitzchak Hutner. “Hannukah is truly, as the great Haredi thinker Rav Yitzchak Hutner wrote, ‘the holiday that celebrates dispute and disagreement.’

Wishing everyone a happily disputatious Hannukah.”

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