Humanistic Hanukkah!

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.

2 Maccabees in Greek

2 Maccabees in Greek

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.

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11 thoughts on “Humanistic Hanukkah!

    • I’m not sure you can be treehugginghumanist and not like Tu B’shevat! 😉 In all seriousness, I hope it gains more traction. Making materials more readily available might help. You can still get the Maxwell House Haggadah at many grocery stores. I’ve never seen one for Tu B’shevat readily available in the same way.

  1. My husband and I are atheists raising our kids to be freethinkers. My husband grew up Jewish (Reform). I grew up not really knowing about religion (celebrated Christmas in a secular way) and converted to Judaism in college. Obviously our beliefs have changed as we got older. Anyway, we’ve struggled over the years on how to celebrate the holidays. We’ve tried relentlessly to make it a Winter Solstice thing, but Christmas and Hanukkah are just such cultural icons, it just hasn’t worked out. Both of us have been nostalgic for how we celebrated holidays growing up, and the kids want to be part of a holiday that other people celebrate too. So, last year we decided to stop forcing it all into the Winter Solstice thing that wasn’t working for us. We are decorating for Christmas and Hanukkah and celebrating both in a secular way. I found your blog because I am trying to come up with an alternative to the blessings recited when we light the menorah. Neither my husband nor I are comfortable reciting blessings we don’t believe in anymore, but we want to say something because we both learned the blessings you recite and it feels odd to not say anything. Have any suggestions or have you seen anything written for Humanist Jews?

    • Yes. I’m so glad you asked!

      One of the posts on this blog, “More Humanistic Hanukkah,” has links to several different Humanistic congregations’ websites that provide at-home readings.

      The most widely-published one in the movement is “Baruch ha-or ba-olam, Baruch ha-or ba-adam, Baruch ha-or ba-Chanukah,” which translates roughly to “Blessed is light in the world; Blessed is light in humanity; Blessed is the light of Hanukkah.” It works pretty well with a slight tweak to the traditional melody.

      And if you have any questions, please feel free to let me know–I’m happy to help! (If you’re inclined, there are lots of local groups–you may be near a humanistic or secular Jewish group that could be a comfortable community, too.)

  2. Nevermind! I read and responded to this before seeing that you created a whole post with links for my very question! Sorry! Thanks for putting them out there!

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