For close to 150 years, Christians have struggled with the true meaning of Christmas. As the Victorians in England began to shift the emphasis of the holiday from a focus on the religious aspects of Jesus to one centered on Santa, gift giving and a tree, many felt that important theological themes of the day were being lost. It turns out Jews struggle with the contested meanings of Hanukkah as well.
We also have to contend with the commercialization and secularization of Hanukkah since our holiday has been elevated to an equivalent status to Christmas. This shift occurred decades ago so that little Jewish children wouldn’t be lured away from their faith by the trappings Christmastime.
So what is the true meaning of Hanukkah? The answer probably depends on your perspective. A recent New York Times opinion piece decried the “Hypocrisy of Hanukkah” by noting that the Maccabees, the heroes of the holiday, are really religious fundamentalist extremists. Their primary enemies were not the Syrian Greeks and their king, Antiochus, but rather their fellow Hellenized Jews.
In many ways, Hanukkah commemorates a civil war, not a rebellion, and the author of the op-ed, a Jewish novelist, declares that “it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me. They would have hated me because I’m assimilated and because I’m the product of intermarriage.” Why should liberal, secular American Jews celebrate the victory of violent religious terrorists?
The problem with this view is that it doesn’t tell the whole picture. Yes, the Maccabees were traditionalists who opposed religious change, but their opponents, the Hellenistic Jews, were just as radical. They wanted to abolish circumcision and sacrifice pigs in the Temple, and they wanted to impose these changes on all of the Jewish people.
Today there are certainly disagreements on what it means to be Jewish in our community, but most just want space to observe the religion the way they want. The ultra-Orthodox in general want to be left alone to practice their type of Judaism, and liberal Jews don’t look to impose their worldview on others. For the most part we have a live and let live perspective, except for issues that touch on personal status such as marriage, divorce and conversion.
In addition, the postscript to the Hanukkah story is quite instructive. While the Maccabees opposed Hellenism and assimilation, after they won the war and gained independence, they began their own process of reform for the religion. It was simply impossible for the nation to completely resist the dominant Greek culture of the time.
The difference between the radical Hellenizers and the Maccabees may have come down to emphasis. The former wanted to subsume Judaism into Greek religion while the latter wanted to make Judaism compatible with Hellenistic culture but remain distinct. This is the same mission we have today, to remain true to our tradition while being relevant to the times.