Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah - Holiday of Lights and Ambiguity

I miss the Hanukkah I knew when I was young.
I miss the absolute truth I knew about the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom.
I miss the unalloyed pleasure in lighting the hanukkiyah, singing the brachot and songs, and opening the presents each night.

Why do I miss these long-ago celebrations of Hanukkah?  Because my understanding of this holiday has been impacted by what I have read and learned since those days, and because it is more difficult to unpack complex ideas than to absorb simple ones.

Big Ideas:

  • Hanukkah was about the preservation of Jewish practice according to the halacha as interpreted by a particular group of Jews of the time
  • Violence can be justified if your enemy threatens your existence
  • History is written by the winners
  • Historical context and events have a powerful effect on the way we understand the world
Essential Questions:
  • Who were the Maccabees?  What was their mission?
  • What is a "just war"?
  • How are we like both the Maccabees and the Hellenists in our lives today?
  • How does the story of Hanukkah impact the various ways we understand our Jewishness today?
  • How did such a minor holiday get to be so important to us?
Learning Activities:
  • Read the article in My Jewish Learning about The Maccabee Revolt for a summary of the story of Hanukkah
  • The Jewish Way of War is a brief summary of some of the rules governing war in Jewish tradition
  • The following quotation from President Obama's speech in Oslo is here:
..."The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence...."  You may want to read Obama's entire speech here 
  • Gary Rosenblatt has written a thought-provoking article about today's Maccabees
  • Yosef Yerushalmi, a leading Jewish historian who died recently, suggested the following:

" ... Zakhor, still Yerushalmi’s best-known book, contrasts the study of history—in which the historian first marshals the facts, then interprets what they mean—with collective memory, in which the meaning of the story precedes and determines the events related. Yerushalmi argued that before the modern era, memory structured the stories Jews told about themselves. ..."
  • The Eighth Day is an excellent trigger for a conversation about tradition and change in the context of the era of the Maccabees.  It is available from Ergo Media
  • Finally, The Jewish Week has a special section it calls Text Context and the articles are a valuable aid to understanding what it means to be Jewish in America (and Israel) and how Hanukkah became what it is to us today.
Such a lot to read about what I already described as a minor holiday.  I can only suggest you read what you have time to read, and think about the issues the articles raise.  I am confident that you will look at Hanukkah differently, but please continue to enjoy the lights, the brachot, the songs and the presents.

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