Rabbi Wein.com The Voice of Jewish History

Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
 Printer Friendly


There probably is no other holiday on the Jewish calendar that has had as much material written about it than the Chanukah festival. There are many causes and reasons for this seeming anomaly of a relatively minor rabbinic holiday receiving so much attention. The fact that by the nature of the calendar it falls in the month of December, and especially this year when it actually coincides with the holiday of the majority culture in the Western world, is part of the reason that it has achieved such notoriety and attention.

Jews never want to be left out of a celebration and thus we have created our own – gifts and all – and this allows us some latitude in participating in the general atmosphere of the month. All of this is perhaps true only on the subconscious level, as it is likely that none of the great scholars of Israel would countenance such an approach publicly. But nevertheless, realistically speaking, one cannot help but feel the resonance of the general culture, at least in the Jewish societies of the Western world.
As such, Chanukah been portrayed in a more universal sense than its original commemoration perhaps warranted. In my youth, the general Jewish representation of the holiday was that it was a battle and a triumph for religious freedom. As such, the mainstream Western Jewish society presented it as a victory for democracy over totalitarian rule and completely universal in its message and content.
This was at a period of time when being Jewish, certainly publicly Jewish, was fraught with financial and social pitfalls in the general society. Even observant Jews did not wear distinctive garb or head covering publicly and therefore displaying the lights of Chanukah in our front windows was to convey a universal idea and not merely a Jewish commemoration.
Again, in my youth, no one placed their Chanukah candles outside, near the door to their residence. The admonition of the rabbis of Eastern Europe as recorded in their halachic works, that one should not antagonize the general population by a public display of Jewish commemoration held true even in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The growing strength and intensity of Orthodox Jewish life in the United States and the great amount of acceptance and tolerance that the Jewish community has achieved over the past half-century has altered this behavior pattern. Most American Jews feel comfortable – except perhaps on the college campuses of the country – in asserting their Jewishness publicly and unabashedly.
Here in Israel, which, all rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, is a very Jewish state, Chanukah mainly has returned to its original format and meaning. It represents the struggle against false gods, Hellenistic misinterpretations of Judaism and a desire to purify the people and the land through our actions and the Divine miracles that are omnipresent in our personal and national lives.
Chanukah here does not stand for pluralistic Judaism, concern for the environment or any of the other new false gods that so invest Western society today, and in parts of the Jewish world as well. The Hasmoneans fought against foreign oppression of Israel and paganism and for Jewish sovereign independence and Torah observance. And that battle has not yet ended.
The miracle of Chanukah is an earned miracle, so to speak. There is rabbinic tradition that all of the miracles that appear in the Bible were built into nature, again so to speak, at the inception of the process of creation. Not so the later miracles that have occurred to us after the closing of the canon of the Bible.
Those miracles had to be earned by the sacrifice and actions of the Jews themselves in opposing evil, wrongdoing and paganism. This is an important lesson for us in our times. Though we do not yet have the ability to purify the Temple or light its golden candelabra, the kindling of our small Chanukah lights symbolizes our determination and commitment to be a free, independent and holy people, devoted to our tradition and our Torah.
By doing so publicly, even in a society where the general culture stands against much of what we represent, we renew our purpose and mission in life. It is our actions that will bring about the necessary miracles that will be reflected in the Jewish story throughout the ages. We therefore thank God not only for the past miracles that Chanukah presents and commemorates but also for the current miracles, seen and unseen, known and unknown, that mark our current existence as well.
Happy Chanukah
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.