יום שבת, נובמבר 11, 2006
Chanukah and freedom
Chanukah was certainly the first Jewish holiday I ever learned about. For that I can thank Mrs. Klein, whose daughter was a classmate in my elementary grades and who came one year to class to give a presentation about this "different" December holiday. That was many years ago, but I remember the latkes and the dreidel game, and perhaps more vaguely, the menorah. Of course, there was presumably no lesson on any religious significance.
I have no such precise recollection of when I first learned of any of the other Jewish holidays, though I am certain that I learned of Yom Kippur because of something I read as a pre-teen about Sandy Koufax and his not playing a World Series game because of the holiday. At any rate, it was much later in life that I learned that Chanukah is not all that important a holiday to Jews after all. But, while it lacks the Biblical basis of the major holidays and festivals, it certainly deserves great celebration. And not because it is an "alternative" to Christmas. In fact, it is far better than Christmas! (And better not because it lasts so much longer.)
At our house, signs of Christmas (in honor of my original religious traditions) ceased to appear some years ago. As long as we have been married, we have always kindled the candles of the Festival of Lights. I find the lights of Chanukah beautiful and inspiring, and I can hardly wait for this year's holiday to begin!
While I have enjoyed Chanukah now for several years, only recently have I learned what a great historical event the holiday commemorates. It is a celebration of one of history's earliest recorded successful guerrilla wars of liberation. Not only did the Maccabean rebels take to the hills to fight for religious freedom; their rebellion was also a struggle for political self-determination against imperialist oppression.
Maybe it is because I am a political scientist--and not only that, but a passionate consumer and advocate of the ideals of Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and their freedom-fighting compatriots--that my more recent understanding of Chanukah is so appealing to me. In that regard, it is more significant that Chanukah follows that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, than that it precedes (and sometimes, as in 2005, coincides with) Christmas. And, to take the relationship of Thanksgiving and Chanukah full circle, originally Chanukah was a delayed celebration of Sukkot, the eight-day celebration of the bountiful harvest, upon which Thanksgiving itself is presumably based.
Many guerrilla wars in our time have been fought in the name of liberation from imperialism and dictatorship. Far too many of them have produced even worse forms of political and religious repression ("Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"). The American Revolution itself was a genuinely radical expression of the freedom that the original celebrants of Thanksgiving sought in the New World. Yet too often, we, the descendants of our political ancestors--Jefferson, Madison, and Washington--have forgotten the lessons. We have elevated the ideology of our assumed rectitude as "freedom-loving" Americans and the virtual idol-worship of our Constitution to a secular religion. And in doing so, we have acquiesced in oppression committed in our own name at home and abroad. And, sadly, too many Jews here and in Israel acquiesce in acts of oppression committed in the Occupied Territories and recently in Lebanon in the name of the freedom and security of a State for the Jewish People.
Chanukah is thus a time to remember that we must never to take our political or religious freedom for granted, nor be blind to others' lack of such freedoms. It is a perfect time not only to rejoice in the miracle of 25 Kislev, 165, B.C.E., and in the mystical beauty of the Festival of Lights, but also to remember that one of our mandates as Jews is Tikkun Olam--repairing the world. That spirit surely includes promoting liberation from oppression--most especially oppression committed in our name as Americans or as Jews--in any way that we can. Of course, the challenge is to find the worthy contemporary counterparts of the Maccabeean freedom fighters. Alas, that is the hard part.