Hanukkah 2017 begins at sunset on Tuesday, December 12, and ends at sundown on Wednesday, December 20. Today we tell the story of the oil, and honor the courage and faith of the Maccabees as they confronted the persecution and forced assimilation of the Hebrew people.
Hanukkah dates back to the Jewish struggle for cultural identity against the urban chic of the Greek culture 200-100 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The Greek emphasis on the individual, its political power, civic culture, ideas and values were irresistible to wealthier educated members of the ruling class throughout the east and Palestine.
Antiochus Epiphanes was King of the Syrian branch of the Alexandrine Empire. He decided that Judaism along with any other non-conforming cultural practices must be purified to replicate the “citizen religion of the great empire”. On penalty of death, all Jews were ordered to cease observing the Torah; instead they were required to follow an imposed, “purified” Judaism. An Athenian expert was sent to direct the practices of the universalized Judaism. Monthly sacrifices to the gods began. Sacred prostitution was set up in the temple. A statue of Zeus was erected inside the temple and his name was associated with the Temple.
Offerings included the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. All the Hebrew laws of purity were systematically violated. Circumcision, kosher food and Shabbats were forbidden. Pagan rituals and sacrifices were instituted not only at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem but also at shrines throughout the land.
Many Jews, filled with admiration for the worldliness and power of the Hellenistic culture followed the directions and obeyed the decrees. But other Jews, deeply committed to the Torah were filled with fury at the oppressive decrees and with revulsion at the cooperation of their compatriots.
Mattathias, a priest deeply committed to the Torah stabbed a Jew who sacrificed in the new cult, killed the king’s agent and pulled down a sacrificial altar, starting a revolt called the Maccabean War. The war was an anti-colonial revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and a civil war within the Jewish community.
Mattathias and his five sons, the Maccabean, gathered a small band of followers. They could not confront the whole Syrian army in conventional warfare, so, they used guerrilla warfare; hiding behind trees, sneak attacks in the hills and forests against the army of Antiochus and his collaborators from within the Jewish Community.
After Mattathias died, his son, Judah Maccabee led the revolt. He was supported by the masses who resisted assimilation but there were still many Hellenist Jews who rallied to the Syrian government’s side. Jews who had been drifting into Hellenism were in the crunch, seeing their brothers defending their home soil, seeing the destruction of local Jewish populations made many
remember that they were primarily Jews. These moderates joined with Judah to recaptured Jerusalem in 166 BCE.
With this victory, Judah set out to rededicate the Holy temple. This meant, among other things, to rekindle the sacred, eternal flame. Sacred oil had to be prepared as fuel for the flame, but it would take eight days to prepare it. According to the miracle story, enough oil for one day was found in the temple. The lamp was kindled, and miraculously, the oil burned for eight days! Long enough to prepare a new supply of sacred oil.
There is no telling of the miracle of the oil in the Hebrew Bible.
1st and 2nd Maccabees gives a detailed accounting of the decisions Judah made, the different Jewish traditions he tried to unite and the laws of the Torah which he confronted in order to reestablish the temple and to declare a holiday. Most of all, the scripture emphasizes the communal joy and acts of celebration- when Judah cleansed and rededicated the temple as a holy place
The story of the miracle of the oils is found only in the Talmud, which is generations of written discussions of rabbis on the Torah. IN a more recent layer of midrash, there is a very short, off handed, reference to Hanukkah. The rabbis are discussing what kinds of candles can be used for Shabbat when one of the rabbis asks if the candles for Hanukkah are any different- One Rabbi asks, “What is Hanukkah?” And the eldest Rabbi answers him with the tale of the oil. Many generations after the Maccabees, this story was an attempt to refocus the holiday on the power of God rather than on the human victory.
For almost two millennia Hanukkah remained a very secondary holiday always shifting the import either on the revolt- or on the oil- until late in the 19th century in central and eastern Europe. The celebration of Christmas was becoming more and more a major society wide event. Jews were becoming semi-assimilated into the broader Christian society. They felt themselves both attracted and threatened by the joyful and pleasant cultural celebrations- especially their attractiveness to children. Many Jews found Hanukkah a useful tool for strengthening Jewish identity- both because of its date close to Christmas and because of its anti assimilation content- Hanukkah was reborn with stronger emphasis on the Maccabees, on resistance to assimilation in defense of religious and ethnic pluralism.
Hanukkah celebrates the courage of Jews to resist the loss of their identity- the power of human strength- The power that is unleashed whenever human beings resist the seduction of rejecting their roots, their own identity for something more attractive, the temptation to be something other than your own true self. That is the e source of miracles.
Two fundamental truths are at the core of Hanukkah- the source of miracles in all our lives.
Be who you are. The strength of your spirit lies in discovering and claiming your unique and precious identity.
2nd Don’t wait for a solution that is logical before you act. Light the lamp. Had Judas not lit the lamp the miracle could never have occurred. The Jews could have acted out of their discouraged, perplexing problem, undone by the logic of only one day of oil. They took a leap of faith, trusting something would happen, something would be revealed. Hanukkah reminds us all to take the bold step of faith in possibility. Sometimes we do not know how it is all going to work, but unless we step out on the limb. The tree cannot grow underneath us. Light the lampo.as well as reverence for the “miracles” in our lives- Human beings need both- the affirmation of our personal power to create change in our lives and faith in something bigger than our human selves which will sustain us and the future of all peoples. The true gifts of the Maccabees can be recognized and affirmed by all who value cultural integrity, self determination and faith.
Hanukkah reminds all people of the courage it takes to be part of a world community- a church community- to have the strength to hold on to your own, not be invalidated, silenced or rolled over and that we must all make room make room for the other. We are each the assimilated and the assimilator- We are each responsible for assuring the presence of miracles. When we have the courage to stand up- to believe, to light the lamp. Don’t miss the miracle- light your lamp.