Rabbi Jamie’s Corner
By Jamie Hyams
Hebrew Free Loan
The holiday of Hanukkah recalls events from thousands of years ago which still feel incredibly relevant today. At its core, Hanukkah is about miracles, faith and Jewish identity. But there’s more than one way to interpret the Hanukkah story.
The “Sunday school” version
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in the city of Jerusalem, the ruling Syrian Greeks controlled the Jewish Temple and desecrated the sanctuary. But after a miraculous victory led by Judah Maccabee, the Temple was reclaimed. When the Maccabees went inside to relight the golden menorah, instead they found only enough oil for one night. That the menorah stayed alit for 8 nights while new oil was found was a miracle and a sign that God was with the Maccabees. A simple narrative, good over evil: by staying true to our Jewish identity, we are victorious, God is with us. They tried to wipe us out, they failed, now let’s eat.
The “historical” version
From another angle, the Hanukkah story is about a Jewish civil war. It can be understood as a revolt between a zealot faction of the Jewish community and Jews who had acculturated into the majority Greek culture and were adapting their practices accordingly.
Where do we fit into this story today?
Struggles with Jewish identity are nothing new. Is the ideal to be like the zealous Maccabees fighting to protect Jewish law and traditional temple life? Or is it better to be like many other Jews of antiquity, balancing Jewish identity and tradition with involvement in the broader culture?
In today’s world, most of us can love who we want and marry who we choose. Under the umbrella of Jewish community, our families are as varied as the colors of the rainbow. The huge variety of hanukkiot (9-branched Hanukkah menorahs) illustrates this point. Today we have hanukkiot shaped like trees, like bicycles, like the wailing wall … and yes, my kids even had a menorasaurus shaped like a dinosaur!
As we light the lights of Hanukkah, let us be inspired by the sons of Joseph, who, though raised in Egypt and fully immersed in Egyptian society, maintained their Jewish identity even as they embraced the broader world.
May the lights of the Hanukkah menorah warm our homes and remind us of who we are, that we stand proud as a people. May these lights guide our way as we go forward beyond the boundaries of our Jewish community.