Chanukah is coming soon, and it brings with it a vital message for today. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in Germany this past fall and in Italy in the fall of 2013. Because I observed and served small, struggling but determined-to-thrive Jewish communities in those places, I appreciate the real meaning of the Festival of Lights more than ever before. I dedicate this essay in particular to the fortitude of those two Jewish communities. The first is Beth Shalom Milano that strives to maintain a viable Reform Jewish presence amid a sea of assimilation on the one hand and a hostile Orthodox presence on the other. The second is the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel who offer a warm welcoming Jewish home to a diverse group of people seeking an authentic connection to Jewish life.
For all my years as a rabbi I have tried to teach in every venue at my disposal – pulpit, classroom, office, anywhere I can – that the Festival of Chanukah is not really about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. Oh, it is a wonderful legend, but it is about as central to the real meaning of Chanukah as Santa Claus is the reason our Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.
The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it can teach us today. Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), it was a time of peace and prosperity. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, but they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.
At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and to our Covenant with God. They understood that God had called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (who included them and us today) to
1. Be a blessing
2. Follow God’s teachings and live worthy lives
3. Use their talents to create a society built on justice and righteousness.
These Jews believed that if they did these things, then in return, God would:
1. Protect them
2. Give them children
3. Make them a permanent people
4. Keep them safe in their ancient land, the land then known as Judaea
But there was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.
In order to accomplish this goal, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion and even mocked our sacred traditions. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.
To make a very long story shorter there was so much tension between these two groups of Jews that soon they started fighting with each other. Then and only then–when he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea–did Antiochus send in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.
The Maccabees fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!
The lesson, though, is an important one for today. Judaism is a use it or lose it commodity. When we take our Judaism for granted, when we neglect to study and practice it, we endanger its survival. That is the real lesson of Chanukah. May we celebrate the Festival of Lights with joy and pride in our precious heritage!