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Why Hanukkah?

Dec. 1, 2010

For the Jewish people, Hanukkah is our story of the first recorded struggle for religious freedom. When Syrian emperor Antiochus unified his kingdom in 167 B.C.E., and in the process forbade circumcision, demanded Jews abandon Torah, publicly practice paganism and bow down to an idol of Zeus (and an image of Antiochus himself), the Jews of the time were faced with an existential crisis. Do we let go of the particularistic rituals, customs and religious traditions of our past and embrace the contemporary spiritual traditions of the majority culture, or cling to the traditions that set us apart? Do we stubbornly cling to the way of life that has been a centuries-old source of resentment, anger and persecution from the many civilizations in which we have lived, or finally admit that we seem to be out of step with the majority of the world and choose to assimilate into a majority culture that is forever bent on encouraging Judaism to finally disappear from the stage of history?

Who are we, this tiny people who represent less than .02 percent of the world's population, that we should stir up such passionate emotions and antipathy? What is it that we represent to the non-Jewish world that seems to so offend the sensibilities of others that in every generation an attempt is made to wipe us from the face of the earth? What other country but that called "The Jewish State" evokes heads of state who are willing to publicly declare their desire to literally eliminate the Jewish people from the planet? Why do we insist on surviving year after year as a unique and separate people, when some core element of who we are or what we represent seems to evoke more hatred and violence than any other people on earth?

As I contemplate the holiday of Hanukkah this year, these questions simply won't go away. "Hanukkah" means "dedication." To what are the Jewish people dedicated? I believe we are it is our history—as the people who brought the world the idea that the same power that created life itself actually cares how we treat one another—that has been the on-going source of antipathy to Judaism by the rest of the world. When we introduced the idea of the "Ten Commandments" and the rest of the ethical mitzvot to the world over 3,000 years ago in the pages of the Torah, we changed the world forever. No longer could the world blindly agree that the only rule that mattered was that whomever had the most power and carried the biggest club got to make the rules. From the moment we declared, "You shall not murder," and "Justice, justice shall you pursue," and "You shall treat the stranger in your midst as the home born" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," we threw down a challenge to the world which could never again simply be ignored.

Jewish civilization represents a value system that declares to every single individual human being on earth, that what they say matters, and what they do matters, and who they are matters. Such hutzpah in the face of the overwhelming political, social and economic power that every other country, state, war lord and bully represents has been reason enough to do whatever possible to delegitimize Jewish culture, values and way of life in generation after generation. The challenge of Hanukkah is to stand up against the bigotry and prejudice of the world, to stand up against those who claim that "might makes right," and to declare year after year after year that we rededicate ourselves once again to the passionate belief that every human being is created in the divine image and therefore every human being matters. That is the real message of Hanukkah. That tyrants will always fall. That bigotry will always fail. That every candle we light on the Hanukkah menorah is a reminder of the teaching from proverbs, "The soul of the human being is the light of God." Light the lights this year with pride as we continue to stand for the enduring values that celebrate the fundamental spiritual worth of every human spirit. That is why Hanukkah continues to matter.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A Yiddish word meaning audacity, for good or for bad; commonly used to imply something was gutsy. Derived from the Hebrew word for "insolence." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is the author of Making Interfaith Marriage Work (Prima Publishing, 1994), A Nonjudgmental Guide to Interfaith Marriage (Xlibris.com, 2002) and There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate: Surviving Your Child's Interfaith Marriage (Praeger Publishing, 2007). He is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

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