There is nothing more powerful than a good narrative. The evolving story of Hanukkah is a great demonstration of this power.
This was my favorite Jewish holiday when I was growing up, and I know I’m not alone. I loved the presents, the songs, and the lighting of the Hanukkiah for eight nights. While my classmates in public school were decorating Christmas trees, I was teaching them how to play dreidel. While they were celebrating one night, I secretly harbored the special feeling that we got “eight crazy nights.” Thanks, Adam Sandler.
For most of us, the holiday of Hanukkah is the story of a miracle of oil lasting eight nights instead of one. But telling this story instead of another was an intentional choice made long ago by the rabbis.
Imagine an alternate universe, where today instead of the story of miracle oil, the story of Hanukkah was predominately told as it is written in the Apocryphal Book of Maccabees. Instead of telling the story of light and miracles, we told the more gruesome story of rooting out assimilation and foreign practices. In the book of Maccabees, they rededicate the sanctuary and light the Menorah, but there is no miracle of eight nights.
Across the Jewish world, preschool and grade school kids dress up as “the Great Maccabees” and put on plays where Matisyahu is the great hero, the Hercules of our Hanukkah story. History though, through the lens of the Book of Maccabees at least, isn’t so simple. Matisiyahu saw a Jew offering a sacrifice in the way of a foreign King and killed the man on the altar. He was compared favorably to the story of Pinchas who slew by sword an Israelite and Moabite cohabiting in the midst of the camp.
How could a holiday constructed from this story adopt the practices of present giving and tinsel decorations? How could a holiday that would celebrate Pinchas-like zealotry and violence against assimilation into Hellenism become the most assimilated holiday in the American Jewish experience?
The truth is, history is always messy. Whenever there is conflict, there are rarely simple heroes and villains. Winners and losers of conflicts decide what narratives they want to share, and which values they want to elevate.
Just as we are, the rabbis of the Talmud must have been uncomfortable with elevating a story steeped in zealotry and violence. Hundreds of years later, a story about miracles and light becomes a part of our tradition. We try to minimize the narrative of violence against fellow Jews and other nations, and lift up the miracle of the weak overcoming the strong. We minimize the anti-assimilationist narrative and lift up the universal value of how a small amount of light drives away much darkness. But we also can’t ignore these stories, these truths of our collective past.
Facing the truth of constructed narrative can be scary, even destabilizing. However, if we embrace the truth of multiple narratives, the full spectrum of God’s light in history might become visible to us, and create the pathways for an even greater peace to emerge.
It’s a miracle that we are safe, secure, and sovereign once again in the Land of Israel. It’s a miracle that we are safe and secure to celebrate this holiday in this country among all the holidays that are celebrated in America. But we must continue to face the hard truths and narratives both in our past and in our present.
J Street seeks diplomacy over war, as opposed to projecting the violence of the Hasmonean Revolt from 2200 years ago as the necessary evil onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. Remembering the voice of the Psalmist (34:14) “Seek peace and pursue it.”
May we always be blessed that the narrative we celebrate is a narrative that promotes the miracle of peace and security for us here, in Israel, and for all peoples of the world.
Rabbi Ari Kaiman received his Rabbinic ordination, with a concentration in Philosophy, studying closely with his Rabbis, Brad Artson and Elliot Dorff. His senior thesis is titled, “Why should a Jew (or anyone) read the Bible?” Upon ordination, Rabbi Kaiman served as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis for five years. Rabbi Kaiman currently serves as the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. He was a member of the second cohort of Clergy Leadership Incubator and was in the Atlanta Clergy Cohort of JOIN for Justice. He is currently applying lessons of the RA Cohort of the Pardes Mahloket Matters Fellowship with partners at Intown Community Church and the One America Movement. In addition, Rabbi Kaiman is the Samuel T. Lachs Fellow of the LEAP Fellowship bringing together Academia and clergy.