The Story of Hannukah:
Its Message of Faith and Religious Freedom
The Rev. Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
The feast of Dedication or the festival of Hanukah has a special signifigance for religious liberals. Traditionally, it is classified as a minor occasion within the calendar of Jewish holidays, yet it has a major importance that is hidden within its story and customs that needs to be honored and preserved within our U-U congregations.
As a part of explaining this importance and the lasting value it has for us, I will quickly trace the history of Hanukah’s origins and examine the theological signifigance of this event and how it might apply to your spiritual questions and religious understanding. I will give a synopsis of the events then provide an explanation of the menorah and its symbolic worth for us. Lastly, I will raise some comments on our current cultural scene and how the controversies that arose in the first Hanukah are still with us today.
First, the merit of celebrating Hanukah in our homes and in our churches has little to do with the sentimentalization of this holiday season. It is neither a Jewish “substitute” for Christmas, nor it a more pagan, earth-centered ritual about the return of light to the earth. It is not Kwanza or Diwali, it is Hanukah, the story of sacrifice, defiance, heroism and faith.
Therefore, all the pleasantries of this holiday, such as making latkes, spinning dreydels, exchanging gifts can be seen as cultural aggregations and accommodations to the commercial impact of our society’s secular Christmas extravaganza.
They are, like the Christmas tree, and jingle bells, only part of an external message of Hanukah, which is really about a holy hope and the cost of maintaining one’s religious freedom.
We can never be sure of the whole story concerning the origins of Hanukah. Like so many traditions and rituals that began in ancient times, we have no one authoritative source, or unbiased accounting of its events. In that regard, there are four references to Hanukah, the two earliest accounts are included in the larger Catholic or non-Protestant Bible, and two are later Jewish commentaries. (I Maccabees 4: 39-59; II Maccabees 10: 1-8; Peskhita Rabbati; The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Condensing these four accounts, the events of what became the origins of Hanukah unfold like this:
During the last two centuries before the Common era or approximately during 200-100 BC., the land that is Palestine was occupied by the Greeks and was under the cultural control of Greek speaking Egyptian rulers known as the Ptolemies in the south, or under Greek dominated Syrian rule, or the Selcudids in the north. (These two rival empires used Israel and Judah as bargaining chips and as moveable territories based on the whims and the might of the ruling families who sat in Alexandria and Damascus.)
After the death of Alexander The Great, these two families divided their kingdoms and placed their rulers over parts of the
Holy Land. These two dynastys made sure to collect taxes and place the burdens of rulership on all the occupied peoples. Next to that in importance was their interest in the complete enculturation of these captives. They wanted to ensure that these subjects learn and reinforce the Greek culture-its language, customs, teachings and its beliefs.
This process, known as Hellenization, was an imposition to the life and routine of the devout Jews and a hindrance to obeying the Mitsvah or commands of the Torah. Its effects were looked at as an another accommodation to power for those Jews who were only culturally connected to their traditions.
As this enforced social reconditioning continued, the devout Jews or the Hasidim began to see this as a systematic destruction of their lifestyle and beliefs, and an attack on their cherished ways of life and worship. This imposition reached its zenith under the ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes. He was the Greek Syrian ruler who commanded that the Greek panoply of gods and goddesses be revered and that the statues of Zeus and (of course tributes to himself) be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem and in all the synagogues in Palestine!
This overt action created a crisis among the Jews. For the Hellenized or polite Jews who were willing to “go along to get along”, they found it to be an awkward embarrassment. For the more devout Hasidim, it was an outrage and a completely intolerable situation-a blasphemy that the Brit or the covenant between God and humanity would be so abused and profaned.
As the destruction of their culture under the iron handed oppression of the Greek tyrant continued, the people became despondent and depressed. They felt both resentment and a powerlessness to stop the encroachment and the profanity.
In short, they were in need of heroic deliverance.
Then, in 165 BC., the Syrian soldiers brought their strategy for cultural conversion to the remote areas near Galilee, in the more mountainous north. There they entered the city of Modin, and were confronted by the defiant Hasmodean priest named Mattathias Maccabeus. (An interesting note from current events- recently, archeologists have unearthed the ruins of a northern city they
believe to be Modin-this could go along way in establishing that this story has a historical or factual basis.)
The Syrian army first tried all the strategies that had worked so easily in the sophisticated southern cities. It was their custom to convert those Jews by excess-That is, they would lavishly bribe the leaders and the priests with wealth, women, and power. All these Jews needed to do was to renounce the Torah, the food laws daily customs, and begin to worship Zeus,thereby adopting the Greek ways of worship as their own.
But Mattathias would have none of it! He and his five sons refused to be corrupted or swayed from their devout Jewish faith.
According to one of the accounts, one of the Jews openly and easily converted in front of him. In a rage, he drew out a knife and killed him. Other accounts infer that he became so upset with the materialism and superficial loyalties he witnessed and became outraged. He railed against the Syrians and their approach. This upset the Syrian army, and so Mattathias, his sons, and their followers, ran up into the hills. There they formed a resistance army against the Syrians. It was at this point that the Maccabean Revolt began.
While easily portrayed as a zealot or as a religious fanatic, we also can receive a picture of Mattathias who was a loyal citizen under Greek rule. Yet, he was foremost a sincere Jew who did not confuse his loyalties or his bottom line values, ethics and beliefs. All he wanted was the right to practice his faith freely and conscientiously. But the powerful and tyrannical Greeks could not allow this, so his only noble recourse was to fight for his faith and his freedom to practice it.
Against seasoned military forces, many well trained soldiers who used elephants and spears, this small band of Jews fought and were able to overcome fantastic odds.
After three years of fierce and bloody fighting, we able to drive the Syrians back and reclaim the Temple at Jerusalem. Along the way, Mattathias was killed. Then one of his sons named Judas Maccabeus began to lead the fight and the tide turned.
Tradition states that Maccabeus means “The Hammer” and that it was the Judas acting as the hammer of God that pounded away at the Syrians until they released the Temple back to the Jews so that they could reclaim their lives and their faith.
As a point of equal time, there is also a female heroine in the Maccabean revolt. Her story, the story of Judith is only found in the Catholic Bible, also in the Apocrapha. She was definitely a woman not to be messed with! She seduced, then cut off and delivered the head of the Syrian General Holofernes to her male leaders. The Syrians in complete horror, surrendered quickly!
Back to the story…
Why was this band of believers able to overcome such lop-sided odds? Because they knew, in the depths of their hearts, that their faith and their whole way of life depended on it. Faith, courage and strength are all synonymous–we are given this quote from the prophet Zecceriah 4:6 “Not but power or by might, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord…” and the words of Judas Maccabeus, who said, “Victory in battle does not depend on the size of one’s army, but on the strength one receives from Heaven.”
The commitment to fight for one’s ideals and for one’s beliefs is one of the crucial teachings we receive from the Hanukah story. It is a lesson that is indeed timeless and always relevant.
Now what about the signifigance of the Menorah? How does this distinctive candelabra and its ritual lighting tie into the original story of Hanukah? What is its value? What does it teach us? First, the menorah used during Hanukah is different that for Shabbat, and other Jewish holy days. It differs in that it has eight wicks with a ninth smaller candle, instead of the customary seven. Generally, the ninth candle is added as a pilot or servant light. It has a special name, the shammus or the servant. It is from that light that all other candles or wicks are lit.
Legend connects this special Hanukah menorah with the ceremony of rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 169 BC.. He reclaimed and purified the Temple after the Greek idols were taken out. Then the whole altar and sanctuary were cleansed and restored. This arduous process took three years of dedicated labor to complete.
Tradition states that when the light of the Temple was to be rekindled, they found only just enough oil for one night’s burning. Reluctantly, they lit that torch, and set out in search of more oil, but they believed that it would not last more than one day and the nearest supplies were miles away. However, when Judas and his people returned, a miracle had happened! The oil had lasted eight days and had symbolically sustained the presence of the Lord in the Temple. (Q: How does our flaming chalice function in a similiar way?)
Then on the 25th day of Kislov,(or December) exactly three years after the Temple was reclaimed and repaired, they held a joyous celebration that lasted for eight days. Judas and the people decided that this commemoration should be an annual event to remind them of their victory over oppression and the price one has to be prepared to pay to maintain their religious freedom. Thus Hanukah became the only Jewish festival not recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
Indeed, if it was not for the courage, faith, and resolve of the Maccabees and their followers, our monotheistic faith and our Judeo-Christian legacy might have been permanently lost- forsaken to the culturally dominant idolatries of the day.
All too often, or so it seems to me, religious liberals are quick to be complacent. Oh sure, we like to make noise, pass resolutions, and we will argue about almost everything…
but actions, commitment, and dare I say, sacrifice for one’s beliefs are not so highly regarded. I suspect this is true because it is rare to take such risks without being accompanied by a strong, abiding faith-something that might be scarce in our Association. While we have always been willing to confront social, sexual, and racial tensions and injustices, I feel that we have lacked the depth and the resolve to see how various religious expressions and differing spiritual dimensions in our churches and across the world need our sincere acceptance and willing advocacy.
This analogy could be made that when it comes to the issues of religious freedom, dignity and autonomy and authenticity. The Maccabees of old were the religious liberals of their day, and the Syrian Greeks were the right-wing Christian Coalition. Is this too far fetched? Maybe, but it remains up to us to rally our words and actions in the coming year to maintain our religious values in the fight against large, intimidating and militant adversaries with their Congressional allies, whose rhetoric is now shifting and shaping our society and whose monetary power is large and deep. The question for us during this last Hanukah season might be this: Do we resolve to clear our temples of apathy, indifference, false security or intellectual arrogance? Will we be more Maccabean in our nobility, and demonstrate our support for those principles and purposes that engage us in social change and involve us personally? Only time, commitment, faith, and our depth of caring will tell… This Hanukah season, do not neglect this heroic story or the need to become re-inspired by the Menorah and its light of God’s sustaining reality and presence in our lives. Be willing to share this story and the blessings of living freely and more faithfully over the next few days, and with God’s help, over and through all the days to come. AMEN