Chanukah, Spiritual Freedom, and Holy Days

All sharings are by their nature personal.  But I do want to let you know up front that this morning’s sharing is deeply personal.  I want to share with you this morning not so much how Chanukah is celebrated, but how I as a Jew hope and want to see it celebrated; how I got there and why.  Seatbelts fastened?

December is certainly a huge month for holidays.  And to start things off I have perhaps an odd question to ask, particularly of the “big two”.  What is it that we are celebrating?  This question is perhaps amplified by the fact that Christmas and Chanukah are indeed celebrated as holidays – Christmas Day is a national holiday.  Banks are closed.

Now, you may know that the single word “holiday” was in fact derived by combining two words, holy day, into one.  And as with so much of language, meaning changes over time.  Holy day and holiday, while still sounding similar, don’t mean the same thing in today’s English.  This is something I’d really like us to grapple with this morning.  And so this December as we celebrate the holidays of Chanukah and Christmas once again I would ask the question: what is it that we are celebrating?

At Christmas, we say we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.  Yet 2000 years after that birth, while we spend billions on Christmas gifts every year, we spend billions more on the latest and greatest weaponry to blow each other up.

At Chanukah, we say we are celebrating the regaining of religious freedom for the Children of Israel.  Yet over the years that followed that victory came the Roman occupation of Judea, the burning of the Temple, the Diaspora, the invention of ghettos, and Hitler’s “final solution”… just to hit the major trials.  Today, some 22oo years later, the right to pray openly and without fear, not only for Jews but all of us, is under relentless attack virtually everywhere we look.

So yet again I keep wondering: what is it that we feel we are celebrating?

Chanukah.   Many would say we are celebrating the victory of the Maccabees reestablishing by force of arms the right of the Jews in Judea to practice their spiritual path without fear or interference.  That’s certainly a cause for celebration, but as we’ve already seen, that right to practice our spiritual path didn’t last very long.  The victory of the Maccabees was quickly undone by the power of Rome.

The Hebrew word “Chanukah” means rededication.  Many would say Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple – a temple that had been looted and had sacrilege upon sacrilege piled upon its altars and holy books.  Happily, the Temple was cleansed and rededicated thanks to the victory of the Maccabees – only to be burned to the ground by Rome some two hundred years later.

So again, what is it that we as Jews are celebrating when we celebrate Chanukah?

Some would say we celebrate that oil that only should have lasted one night lasted for eight – a miracle!  … But the truth is, this story actually came later – much later.  It’s a beautiful story, but as we’ll see it was added to Chanukah hundreds of years after the fact.

So yet again, the question remains and I can’t escape it: what are we celebrating?  Are we celebrating a military victory that occurred 2200 years ago?  Are we celebrating the rededication of a temple that would be burned to the ground some 200 years later?  Are we celebrating a miracle story that was added to Chanukah generations later?  Or are we by chance celebrating the opportunity to compete with our Christian brothers and sisters in helping the economy by buying massive numbers of gifts?

It may surprise you to learn that traditional Judaism treats Chanukah as one of the minor holy days on the Jewish calendar.  Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur: these are the biggies.  Chanukah is minor stuff.  So the question I would now like to ask is, when I and other Jews celebrate Chanukah, are we celebrating a holy day or a holiday?

This is a question that, if we choose to, all of us may ask of the celebrations within our own paths.  This morning, I am specifically asking it of mine.

I would like this morning to be an advocate for change.  I think Chanukah should indeed be considered a major holy day – a deeply sacred day.  What are we celebrating?  For me we are celebrating the right of every human being, the birthright of every human being to pray as he or she is called.

At Passover, we say, “If one be slave, then none of us is truly free.”  At Chanukah I would ask us to say and embrace “If one of us is not free to pray as she or he is called, then none of us is truly free.”  A day for the celebration and embrace of the human birthright to pray or not as we are called would truly be a holy day.  But as you may have noticed, we’re not there yet.

So how did we get to where we are?  To answer that, let’s peel back the onion that is Chanukah.  Around 200 BCE, Antiochus the Great of Syria conquered Judea – rescuing its Jewish population from the not particularly loving hands of Egypt.  When he died, Antiochus the Great was succeeded by his son, perhaps best called Antiochus the not so great, but usually called Antiochus IV or Antiochus Epiphanes.  He forbade the Jews of Judea to practice their religion.  To drive the point home, the Temple, the very center of Jewish practice, was desecrated.   A revolt was led by a priest whose name was Mattathias, marking the first time in recorded history that a people revolted over their right to pray.  When Mattathias died, his son Judah took command.  He was such an effective general that he quickly became known as Judah the Hammer or Maccabee.  The revolt succeeded, and the Syrians left Judea.  The temple was cleaned up and then rededicated.  Chanukah.  Rededication.

But ritual created a small problem for people wanting to celebrate this great event.  The menorah that you see here, the seven flamed menorah, the menorah that symbolizes Judaism to this day, was the Temple menorah.

Ritual demanded that no Jew of that era be allowed to possess one.  So a new menorah was created with eight flames, not seven, plus a ninth flame, called the Shamash, to be used to light the others.  That’s the menorah we recreated in our joys and sorrows area.  It’s called the Chanukiah.

But, you may recall, we said earlier that Chanukah is considered a minor holy day.  How minor?  The story of the Maccabees is not to be found in Hebrew Scripture.  Indeed, the only time it is found in Scripture is in the Catholic version of what became called the “Old” Testament.  Now the story in its essence is found in the work of the Roman historian Josephus writing some two hundred years after the fact, and a more embellished version may be found in the Talmud, considered by many in Judaism as “the oral Torah” written some five hundred years later.  And it is indeed in the Talmud that the miracle of Chanukah, where oil meant to last for one day lasted for eight, is first mentioned.

Thus time and tradition made Chanukah first into a holy day and then in more modern times a holiday – a fun holiday, with fun food, and dreidels, and songs, and gifts – not to mention LOTS of candles.

For me, a part of reclaiming our holy days goes to how we approach our rituals.  This can be a complex subject; but just briefly, rituals can be beautiful.  Rituals can help us to focus.  But when we lift our rituals too high, I believe they cease to serve the holy day and instead overwhelm and indeed rule it.

As one example, when we dutifully light our candles but don’t become bearers of light and justice ourselves, ritual has conquered holiness.

For me, the so-called “War on Chanukah” or, for that matter, the “War on Christmas” does not come from people saying “Happy Holidays.”  It comes from Christmas and Chanukah becoming holidays.

But here for me is the challenge, and I believe it to be a challenge for all of us, not just Jews.  Holidays are fun.  Holidays are FUN!  We shouldn’t have to lose that.  I, for one, don’t want to lose that.  Indeed, I would strongly urge that we be careful not to lose that!   Ok.  But if we seek to regain the distinction between holidays and holy days, without losing the fun of holidays, how do we go about that?  That’s not a small question.

As an Interfaither, I would like to see holidays and holy days co-exist: peacefully and joyfully.  But what I would also like to see is for us to develop the ability to separate holiday from holy day.

And if I as practicing Jew would like to see Chanukah move from only a holiday to also be a holy day and indeed one of Judaism’s major holy days: we return to the foundational question for this morning.  What would I be celebrating during the eight holy days of Chanukah?

I would hope that we could take the symbol of the rededication of the Temple as a time to rededicate ourselves – specifically to rededicate ourselves to spiritual freedom for ourselves and all our brothers and sisters.  And in the words of the Prophet Micah, that we shall sit, every man and woman, under their fig-tree; “And none shall make them afraid.”  All of humanity free to worship as they will, and none shall make them afraid.  That for me is a holy day well worth lifting high and celebrating.

May we move to holidays as fun sacred reminders, not sacred days to be observed briefly and then filed away until next year.  And let our holy days become a part of our lives, year-long and not just for a day, and inspire us to live, to truly live that which we hold as sacred.

In the words of the hymn we will shortly finish singing … “What is the memory that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?  What’s the commitment to those who have died, when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?  We have come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail.  This is the burden, and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail.  Don’t let the light go out.”

Happy Chanukah!


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