When anthropologists look at religious festivals, they often deconstruct the legends that have become the reasons a specific religious tradition gives for the festival. Their work seems to become antireligious.
But sometimes – not always – what they do uncovers a deep root of spirituality that without negating the tradition, can enrich it.
So before Hanukkah is gone and just after Christmas, let us look at what arises.
When I was young, all we learned about Hanukkah was the Maccabeean revolt of guerrilla bands against a great imperial army, and the miracle of one day’s supply of sacred olive oil to light the sacred Menorah in the Holy Temple that lasted eight days until more olive oil could be consecrated.
It was clear that Jews had a patent on Hanukkah and needed to defend it from yearnings for Christmas trees and lights. The notion that Jews of Color might light the Hanukkah menorah or that Jews might even invite People of Color from other traditions to join in lighting – ridiculous.
[This photo by Linda Jo Epstein shows a gathering for “Black Lives Count” at Amtrak’s 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, led by Rabbi Linda Holtzman]
In that generation, no one mentioned the odd fact that the beginning of the festival on the 25th day of a lunar moonth (when the moon is swiftly waning) in the moonth closest to the winter solstice -- meant that Hanukkah lived through the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. And no one connected this interesting fact with the still more interesting fact that in this time of darkness, we light a growing glow of light.
I am happy that in my book Seasons of Our Joy (1981) I helped unearth this dark and buried knowledge, bring it to the Light of consciousness.
Does this “discovery” negate the Maccabees or the Menorah miracle? No. It enriches them. Hanukkah becomes a festival of spiritual, political, and emotional hope restored in a time personal, political, and cultural despair. A time that our own generation echoes.
Even the Temple legend, coming after victory that restored the Temple to Jewish hands and dedication, enriches the story. For after many a “victory” comes the post-partum depression of feeling that victory didn’t matter – that no new life, new society, has come to birth, after all. That is the depression that the legend transforms. After all, after all – we can celebrate a new level of living!
There is another important Hanukkah fact that is hiding in plain sight. The Book of First Maccabees mentions that the Seleucid Empire’s “desecration” of the Temple (which included erecting a statue of the god Zeus) took place on the 25th of Kislev, that same wintry lunar moonth, exactly three years before the Jewish rededication.
For Jews, erecting Zeus was desecration. For a Hellenistic religious community at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, it was a sacred celebration. Perhaps the celebration of the time of waning moon and darkening sun was already sacred. And perhaps that moment seemed deep with meaning, even to Jews,
I think that they wanted to keep it full of energy, even though that festival-time is not mentioned in the Torah.
Now let us turn to Christmas. From the standpoint of many Jews and some Christians, it celebrates the birth of an extraordinary rabbi who became a nonviolent radical challenging the Roman Empire and was cut down by Imperial Power at the moment of his strongest challenge to that dark power (during Passover, a moment most connected to dissolving Imperial tyranny). (We know such murderous moments in our own day: Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, the martyred nuns of El Salvador, Harvey Milk, Ali Shariati.) He then became the focal point of a new religion that saw him as more fully a child of God and an aspect of God than other human beings. In Christian tradition, the crisis week of Passover ends not with the Roman torture and execution on the Cross but with resurrection three days later.
The birth-date of Rabbi Jesus became known as the 25th of December, a solar month in the solar calendar preferred by Rome – a date heedless of the moon but in many years even closer to the solstice than was the 25th of Kislev. A dark day when new light came into the world.
Was this confluence of these dates and seasons an accident, or a miracle? Neither. It was a decision, just as Hanukkah was. We know that the Christian Church did not decide to celebrate December 25th as Jesus’ birthday until the third century of the Church’s history. We also know that a Mediterranean religious community that worshiped the god Mithra and had great influence in Rome said December 25 was Mithra’s birthday.
Perhaps the 25th of December as a sacred day was originally an attempt to translate the 25th of Kislev into solar time, keeping even closer to the solstice. Perhaps the relationship between Hanukkah and Christmas is not about imitation but cousinship, both heirs and transmutations of an earlier festival that appealed so much to the grass-roots folk of both communities that the officials of both communities found deep truth in stories that upheld Deep Truth about this moment of the seasons of our joy and sorrow.
Earth teaches us some of the deepest wisdom of the Spirit. These hints of origin in the always-changing dance of Earth / Moon/ Sun are seeds of religious and spiritual transformation. Just as no one who lives in the temperate zones of Planet Earth can fail to notice “Death and Resurrection” in the seeds that settle into soil and seem to die, yet rise again into new life each Spring– so no one can fail to notice and seek hope of transformation from this wintry moment when the Light of Clarity mixes with the Dark of Mystery -- indeed making the Dark into Mystery rather than ignorance.
In the strand of Jewish tradition, once the ancient Rabbis had set forth the Hanukkah story of Menorah oil, their heirs in the 6th century CE went deeper to underline the connection. For the Prophetic reading on the Shabbat of Hanukkah they chose Zechariah’s ecstatic vision – seen from Babylonian Diaspora -- of a rebuilt Temple that welcomes all nations to celebrate the One God.
And Zechariah welcomed not just all Humankind as worshippers, but all living beings. He knew that Torah described the Menorah itself as the golden model of a Tree -- branches, buds, flowers. (Exodus 25: 31-40)
He went much further. He prophesied that in the rebuilt Temple there should be two living olive trees, one on each side pf the Menorah. (Already radical for a community that forbade a tree in the Temple, lest it beckon to idolatry of Asherah.)And what would his radical new Menorah-forest teach? “ ‘Not by might, and not by power – but by My ruach -- Breath/ Spirit/ Wind of Change,’ says YHWH /Yahhhh, the Breath of Life.” How could the golden Green Menorah and its trees do this? Between the human beings who made the Menorah and trees there is an interbreathing: we breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. By letting those with great might and power produce mechanically far more CO2 than all the trees and grasses can transmute to Oxygen, we are burning the planet. Zechariah's tiny "cyber-forest" teaches us that our interbreath is sacred.
Zechariah’s departure from the “rules” by welcoming two trees into his visionary Temple did not stop there. He asserted that these two olive trees would be pouring their golden olive oil directly into the golden Light-bearing Menorah. No human intervention would be necessary. (Zech 4:11-14) Here in the center of the Holy Temple would be a bodily model of the intertwining words of intertwined reality: adamah and adam -- Earth and Human Earthling.
Not the Maccabeean victory, not even the overflowing eight-day supply of olive oil, but this – this is at the heart of Hanukkah.
This is Light in a time of the Darkness we see all around us, the Darkness of the danger that most of the life-breath of our Mother Earth could be extinguished in the next century, and perhaps Humanity among the other life-forms. But the Light does not drown out the Darkness. This Light turns the Darkness into Mystery. How can we draw deep on the Light of science and the dark of Mystery? – How can these olive trees feed this Menorah? How can we nourish this strange ecosystem that nourishes us? How can we renew the Interbreathing ruach that sustains all Life? How can we shape the transformation that we need not from might, not from power, but from our joining in the Spirit that’s blowin’ in the Wind?
Shalom, salaam, paz, peace -- Arthur
[Here are some sources of more wisdom on Hanukkah.]
See the Hanukkah chapter in my book Seasons of Our Joy.
See also Eric M. Meyers, “The Vision of 6th Century Chanukah in Zechariah: The Significance of the Rabbinic Choice of Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah” at https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-vision-of-6th-century-chanukah-in-zechariah-the-significance-of-the-rabbinic-choice-of-haftarah-for-shabbat-chanukah
For powerful chants by Rabbi Shefa Gold based on passages -- Rani v’Simchi and others -- from the Hanukkah Haftarah, see Oysongs.com and her album called Chants Encounter.
At The Shalom Center, we interweave essays like this on the deep meaning of some of our ancient rituals and symbols, with guides to using them in action to heal our world and Mother Earth. Please help us continue this work by contributing your holy-day gift -- clicking on the “Contribute” button below.
Thanks! -- Arthur