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Clash of two Hanukkahs: Jewish exceptionalism vs. assimilation

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (JTA) — Two holidays with very different meanings are colliding this holiday season — not Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, but Hanukkah and Hanukkah.

Let me explain.

The first version of Hanukkah is the classic one often trotted out to remind us that this isn’t just a winter holiday of gift giving with a Jewish flavor. In this telling, a small band of Maccabees defeats Antiochus and the mighty Greeks. A miracle marks their victory as one day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days. The darkness of the Greek veneration of physicality and materialism is vanquished by the light of the Jews’ faith in their eternal Torah. In this version, Hanukkah is a testament against assimilation.

It would seem ironic, then, that Jews in America celebrate Hanukkah by shoehorning it into the larger consumer-oriented celebration of Christmas with our own blue-and-white colored lights, gifts and holiday parties.

But there is another story of Hanukkah that is as much about how the holiday over the centuries has reflected the larger cultural milieu in which it was celebrated. Hanukkah, like the Jews who celebrate it, has undergone radical changes.

The story of Hanukkah began as a military revolt that led to Jewish self-government. But only a few generations after the rebellion, the Hasmonean dynasty came to be viewed as deleterious to the Jews. Against this background came the first mention of the miracle of the oil and the establishment of Hanukkah by the Jewish sages as an eight-day holiday beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev that uses the kindling of lights to publicize the miracle.

The inspiration for these lights may have been Saturnalia, an eight-day Greco-Roman festival that marked the winter solstice with gifts and the lighting of candles, symbolizing wisdom and beckoning the return of the sun. Saturnalia also may have influenced the way Christmas, observed on the 25th of December, developed as a time of gift giving and lights.

The very language that would be used later to frame Hanukkah as a triumph of the spirit over the body would not have become part of the Jewish lexicon without Plato and Aristotle. There is no real evidence in Jewish teachings of a split between mortal body and everlasting soul until Greek thought makes its way into centers of rabbinic learning and eventually, through Arabic sources, serves as a basis for medieval Jewish philosophy.

Perhaps the holiday’s greatest irony comes from Israel, where the name of the Maccabees is used for the Maccabiah, the so-called Jewish Olympics, even though the Maccabees vehemently opposed the Greek focus on physical prowess.

Even the manner of lighting our candles has been subject to outside influences. The Talmud makes clear that the proper placement of the candles was outside one’s home, where they could best broadcast the miracle of the Hanukkah story to Jewish passers-by. However, in dangerous times, the Talmud notes, it is “sufficient to place them on a table” indoors.

During the Middle Ages, rabbinic authorities increasingly relied on that leniency, and the Hanukkah menorah went from being about publicizing the miracle to outsiders to a practice whose audience was predominantly one’s own family.

In America, despite unprecedented Jewish safety and acceptance, most of us continue to light the menorah indoors. Yet we have found new ways to publicize the story of Hanukkah to our neighbors with mega-menorahs in public squares, blue-and-white lights decorating our homes and electric menorahs in building lobbies.

Part of the miracle of Hanukkah in America could be the miracle of assimilation — not assimilation as a measure of an individual getting lost in the larger culture, but as an opportunity to incorporate key elements of the larger culture while remaining strongly and unabashedly Jewish.

It is incredible that a relatively small people could survive for so many generations, transmitting sacred creeds, texts and practices. Yet our survival was not accomplished by remaining pure and separate but by embracing the possibilities in society as a whole.

In America, Hanukkah, once synonymous with zealous religious practice, now takes its turn standing for religious freedom and justice. This is not to say that these themes are artificial or alien. They are part of the same Jewish cloth that always has been interwoven with the influences around it, whether in Athens, Rome or Plymouth Rock.

With Hanukkah falling on Thanksgiving this year rather than Christmas, we have found a new way to meld our holiday with that of the larger culture. This “Thanksgivukkah” gives us a new opportunity not just to teach, invite and “make public” our Festival of Lights, but also to showcase our Jewish pride along with it.

(Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga.)

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