“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” For many Americans, December brings with it excitement, fun, family traditions and, of course, gifts. And for many Jews, December brings these things, but also brings feelings of alienation and ambivalence. We navigate how to respond to Christmas programs at our children’s schools, Christmas parties at our offices and the ubiquitous Christmas music and decorations. We have to decide whether to embrace the holiday that is not ours, or insist on our difference and potentially feel like outsiders in our communities. Appropriately, at this season we also celebrate Chanukah, which is the quintessential holiday of holding fast to Jewish tradition in a non-Jewish world. The book of I Maccabees tells us:
Then Antiochus the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die’ (I Maccabees 1:44-50).
Many Jews obeyed the command to abandon their Jewish practices, but one family famously resisted:
Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice, ‘Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left’” (I Maccabees 2:19-22).
Mattathias and his sons were willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives, rather than abandon their Jewish faith.
The holiday of Chanukah began as a celebration of the courage of the Maccabees who quite literally fought for the right to remain Jewish. The Rabbis of the Talmud, however, were uncomfortable with this emphasis on a military victory, and so they created the famous story of the miraculous oil that lasted for eight days. The Sages therefore mandated that the chanukiyah be lit during Chanukah and placed in a doorway or window in order to publicize the miracle of the holiday (Talmud Shabbat 21b). Ironically, that halakhah (law) is immediately qualified so that “in a time of danger [when the government issued decrees to prohibit kindling lights,] he places [the chanukiyah] on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.” In other words, the Rabbis celebrated the Maccabees’ triumph over religious persecution by lighting the chanukiyah, but built into the laws of the ritual itself the very real possibility that there would continue to be religious persecution in the Rabbis’ own time and in times to come.
As we celebrate Chanukah this year, we can be grateful that we live in a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, so that no leader can command us to replace our chanukiyot with Christmas trees. But we are also painfully aware that even in 2018 and even in the United States, it is still dangerous to be a Jew. Like the Maccabees before us, we are forced to ask, “How much am I willing to sacrifice in order to remain Jewish?” Like the Sages before us, we are forced to ask, “What if it isn’t safe for me to put my chanukiyah in the window, to declare my Jewish identity proudly and publicly?” We grapple with these questions, and we mourn the fact that we are still asking them after two millennia. But hopefully, with the support of family and community, we will have the courage to answer like Mattathias: “I and my sons and daughters, my brothers and sisters, will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.”
So like our ancestors before us, we light our chanukiyot as an act of defiance in the face of terror, resistance in the face of hate. May our celebrations this month bring more light and more peace into our homes and into the world. Eric, Maverick and I wish you all Chag Urim Sameach – a happy Festival of Lights.