Hanukkah starts in a couple of weeks. And so, too, will start (actually, this already started) the observations that Hanukkah is a minor holiday downplayed by the rabbis, etc.
Fine, that’s all true.
And, being the contrarian I am, I think we should play it up–especially in the Humanistic Jewish world.
The various accounts of what Hanukkah “means” are pretty well known. There’s the religious miracle of the oil. There’s the secular Israeli take–that Jewish effort at arms led to a moment of national freedom. There’s the religious Zionist version, under which a divine hand supported Jewish effort at arms to reach a moment of religious freedom. There’s the reactive American Jewish take, under which Hanukkah is about resisting assimilation. And there’s the secular/naturalist take on Hanukkah as a paradigmatic winter holiday focusing on light in the darkness, like Christmas/Kwanzaa/Diwali/etc.
Fine, fine, all, for their purposes.
I want to celebrate Hanukkah for a couple of different reasons. First, Hanukkah and Passover are the two holidays most widely observed by American Jews of all types. If you want Jewish involvement, don’t tell the Jews that one of the two major holidays in Jewish homes is “not that important.”
Put another way: Jews defined Judaism. American Jews have largely decided Hanukkah is important despite traditional rabbinical consternation. So let’s have a great Hanukkah!
But while we’re on the topic of American Jews…
You know what’s really great about American Jewish life? No, not its present (and seemingly unending) self-mortification over assimilation.
Its diversity. Secular Humanistic Judaism, Reform Judaism, Renewal Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, Yiddishist movements, Conservative Judaism, the Union for Traditional Judaism, Modern Orthodox Judaism, even we-make-Agudath-Yisrael-look-liberal Judaism! Even “just Jewish” Judaism, and “Universalist” Judaism, and “Big Tent” Judaism, and “postdenominational” Judaism!
You know what was really fascinating about Judaism in the ancient Mediterranean at the time of the Maccabean revolt?
Its diversity. The pietistic Judaism of the Maccabees was there, sure. But also various Hellenizing forms of Jewish life–versions of Jewish thought and life preserved in small pictures by Ecclesiastes, and Sirach, and Job, and Joseph and Asenath, and the Letter of Aristeas, and Philo, and Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian! And, of course, eventually the Essenes, and the Sadducees, and the Pharisees, and…!
You get the picture. This is not to say that the diversity in one period is the same as in the other, or to say that such diversity was as widespread in the Hellenistic world as it is today. But we lose sight of those diverse pieces of past Jewish cultural forms in the dominant narratives of the present.
And do you know what the Maccabean revolt did? Within Judea and the Galilee, it had the effect of crushing diversity. It–and the books that most celebrate it, I, II, and IV Maccabees–served to write out of Jewish history the Jewish “antagonists” of the story, casting their lot with non-Jews without regard to the support they may have had from other Jews. It cut short changes to Jewish life that might have brought more diversity, more range of thought, perhaps even more personal freedom to Jews living in the land of Palestine.
That’s the oft-ignored tragedy of the Maccabean revolt.
And so, when you celebrate Hanukkah this year, take time out to celebrate not just Jewish survival, but Jewish diversity. Celebrate the human accomplishments of the Jewish people–not because any of it is miraculous (I’m a humanist; I don’t think any of it is truly miraculous), but because it’s the work of people that “sustains us, sets us up, and brings us to this day.”
Celebrate people power. The power to make change in the world. The power to think for oneself. The power to redefine your engagement with tradition. The power to redefine your identity.
Use your power to celebrate a humanist Hanukkah.