As the sun slips lower on the horizon and the moon fades away, we approach the festival of Chanukah. The rabbis of the Talmud placed our holiday during the waning of the moon close to the winter solstice. Here in Humboldt County we really feel that darkness as the days are so short and the nights so long. There are beautiful teachings from the Jewish mystical tradition about the hidden, inner light of Creation – the Or Ganuz – which is available to us during the Chanukah festival.
The holiday is based on a story of military strife in 169-166 BCE (Before the Common Era.) Tensions between upper-class Hellenized Jews and rural Jewish fundamentalists erupted in violence and grew into civil war. The Greek-Syrian forces in control of the region stepped in on the side of the modernists, and the conflict turned into an anti-colonial campaign led by the Hashmonaim priest Mattisyahu and his five sons, who came to be known as the Macabbes. Against great odds, the fundamentalist rebels routed the occupiers from Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. However the victory was short lived and followed by another 24 years of fierce warfare, until the Hashmonaims dynasty was firmly established. The Hashmonaims then embarked on their own campaign of regional conquest – which included forced conversions to Judaism. They also violated the ancient Israelite constitution by setting themselves up as kings, thereby obliterating the checks and balances system between priests and monarchs. This inglorious period in Jewish history comes to an end as the Hashmonean kings, rife with corruption, intrigue, and fully Hellenized, invite the Roman Empire to rule in Judea, paving the way for the Roman General Pompei to capture Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
It’s no wonder that by the 1st century of the Common Era, the rabbis found this historic period so troubling that the Book of Macabbes was not included in the final redaction of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Chanukah story is found in Greek texts that are part of the Apochrypa, additional writings of the “Old Testament” in the Christian Bible. Living under Roman occupation, the Talmudic rabbis had practical, political reasons to refrain from embracing a story of rebellion. But they also had a theological reason; they chose a reading from the Prophet Zecharyah for the Shabbat of Chanukah: “Not by might and not by power, but through My spirit, says the Holy One.” And with the Talmudic story about one day’s supply of oil lasting for the eight days the Temple’s rededication, the rabbi’s shifted the holiday’s emphasis from military prowess toward the miraculous powers of God. This lesson is still pertinent; military power is limited; spiritual power is beyond all limitations and concepts. With the shrinking of our planet and interconnectedness of societies around the globe, we see much social strife for which there is no effective military solution. It’s time to dedicate ourselves to spiritual solutions: education, cooperation, communication and compassion.
The word Chanukah means ‘dedication,’ referring to the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been defiled by the occupying forces. (The word for education, chinuch, is from the same root.) The winter is a wonderful time to re-dedicate ourselves to spiritual pursuits and deepen ties to family, friends and community.
A long, dark winter evening is the perfect time to pick up a book and educate ourselves about the complexities of our world. This Chanukah I’m hoping to make my way through a 700+ page volume by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker titled, The Better Angels of Our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined. For reading on Chanukah, I recommend the Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Seasons of Our Joy.