“True story of Hanukkah?” you may ask. “Isn’t there only one story?” You’d probably be referring to the tale of the Jewish festival of lights, which celebrates the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), and the narrative that Jewish rebel Judas Maccabeus vanquished the evil Greek emperor Antiochus and rededicated the Temple, at which the miracle of the oil occurred. Only… this isn’t the whole story. (For a great historical overview of the Hanukkah story click here)
But before I reveal the whole story, I share with you a thought. Why have we conspired to keep the story of Hanukkah in the dark? Why do we relegate it to a relatively juvenile passive tale of a miracle happening to us?
Hanukkah has become a significant festival only in the last 75-100 years in a desperate attempt to keep up with the ever more commercial mayhem that is Christmas. With advertising for Christmas starting the first day after Halloween, some Jewish parents need a counterweight, something to divert their kids’ attention to a Jewish theme. In the old days Hanukkah was about lighting candles, eating latkes, spinning dreidels, gambling with chocolate gelt, and maybe opening a tchotchke or two. Now it’s presents and more presents and an easily digestible story.
The Hanukkah story was all but lost by the second century. In fact someone asks the question in the Talmud, “What is Hanukkah?” This is not a pedagogic technique. I think the questioner sincerely challenges his colleagues to share their thoughts. It’s only then that we hear the story of the oil lasting 8 days hence 8 nights of Hanukkah… Nice story. Only…
Spoiler alert… Only the real story of Hanukkah is not about the miracle of oil. The eight days was all about the festival of Sukkot lasting eight days. Confused? It seems that in 164 BCE, when Sukkot time came along, the Temple in Jerusalem was in the hands of the enemy. Therefore our ancestors could not observe this 8 day holiday. We’re not in tune with the Jewish holiday cycle and its agrarian roots. But for our ancestors, the agricultural aspects were primary components of the holiday. Not to observe Sukkot, the festival of the Fall harvest, was experienced as bad form, if not bad karma. What if it cursed the harvest? When the Temple was reclaimed, our ancestors decided that they would start off the rededication by practicing Sukkot; better late than never.
Why does the miracle of the oil story hold sway over the ‘real’ story? At its heart the story of Hanukkah is about revolutionaries evicting a foreign culture and its acolytes. It’s about a corrupt institution (the Temple) being challenged by those who depended on its sanctity. It’s also about a people who were striving to hold the line against innovation and reform, who believed that any change was bad and destructive. All of which is to say that the real Hanukkah story is like lots of stories: good guys acting like bad guys and vice versa. It’s like the home team that slowly gets lazy and indolent and the outsiders prepare to pounce. It’s about how a small force can bring havoc down on the heads of a large established nation and its army. Do you see the problem? We love the Maccabees and their courage. We hate their fundamentalist coercion and their binary worldview. We applaud their audacious unmasking of the corrupt priesthood. We are appalled when the Maccabean descendants themselves become corrupt.
The real story leaves us with many more questions and dilemmas. Is it any wonder that our ancestors went for Hanukkah ‘lite’? It’s so much easier to take the story out of the realm of human foibles and greed, placing it instead in God’s hands, make about the triumph of light over darkness.
Just this morning I taught the TBA preschoolers the miracle of the oil Hanukkah story. That’s how our children should start learning about this holiday. But it does us no good to stay with that story alone. Our Judaism must be openhearted enough to embrace the subtle meaning of miracles of light. It must also be hardheaded enough to withstand the ambivalent message of how the Jewish people have sought to change the way we do things and how sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
Our only hope is to be honest and forthright about our past and to stand in the present with integrity. We cannot afford to wait for another miracle story. This time we’re the ones who must bring the light. We have to make the miracle with our own hands and love and sweat and pain. That’s the real Hanukkah story.