By Rabbi Mark L. Winer, JWV National Chaplain
Chanukah gets a bad rap.
In the Jewish tradition, Chanukah is regarded as a minor holiday. Indeed, for hundreds of years, observant Jews were forbidden from celebrating Chanukah. Those who commemorated the Maccabees’ victory would receive no part of the “World to Come,” according to the Mishnah, the foundational compilation of the Talmud.
Only when the focus of Chanukah shifted to the miraculous oil lasting eight days, was the festival grudgingly admitted into Jewish observance. The story of the one day supply of oil which burned for eight days appears a few hundred years after the Mishnah in the Gemara.
Some modern Jews dislike Chanukah because many Jewish parents in contemporary America set up Chanukah as a Jewish counterpart to Christmas. No matter how wonderful Chanukah is, it cannot possibly hold a candle to what Christmas means to Christians. With the exception of Easter, Christmas is the most important holy day in the Christian year. Even eight days of presents and the most beautiful Chanukah Menorah cannot compete with what the Christmas tree, the creche, and the nativity mean to Christians.
Chanukah may not be so important in the Jewish tradition, nor does it really work as the Jewish version of Christmas, but Chanukah is a meaningful festival for modern Jews who delight in being loyal Jews and at the same time rejoice in being loyal patriots in their native and adopted lands. From my perspective, Chanukah is a particularly important holiday, for American, Israeli, and modern Jews everywhere in the world. It is especially powerful in its message to Jewish families in which one or more members have served in our nation’s armed forces.
Chanukah is the festival which most poignantly speaks to modern Jews. Like the Maccabees, we modern Jews stand up for our beliefs. We fight anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. We stand up for Jewish rights here in America and in Israel. American Jews spearheaded protests which culminated in the liberation of Russian and Ethiopian Jews. Our people recovered from the worst genocide ever perpetrated against any people. We both re-established the State of Israel after 2,000 years of exile and built American Jewish life to a level of strength and depth of observance and study without parallel in Jewish history.
Like the Maccabees of the Chanukah story we balance a healthy traditionalism and a sensible enjoyment of modernity. Proud, strong, and free, we rejoice as heirs to the noble legacy of the Maccabees.
Volume 73. Number 4. 2019