The Many Meanings of Chanukah

Rabbi Mark Greenspan tells a story about Chanukah that he heard on a visit to Cuba two years ago. The Island of Cuba had, at its height, a Jewish population of about 15,000 people, mostly in Havana. As a result of the Cuban revolution, 95% of the Jews left the island. Although Jews were discriminated against, along with others who practiced a religion, Jewish practice was permitted. Because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its concomitant economic hardships, the Cuban government liberalized its policies and allowed members of the communist party to participate in religious associations. This led to a rejuvenation of Judaism in Cuba. In 1998, Adela Dworin, president of the Patronato, the largest synagogue in Havana, approached Fidel Castro at a public gathering and asked him why he hadn’t visited the synagogue. Fidel answered: “Because no one invited me!” Mrs. Dworin immediately extended an invitation to Castro to join in the Chanukah celebration with the Jewish community. Unfamiliar with the holiday, Fidel asked “What is Chanukah?”

Thinking quickly, Dworin said, “It is a celebration of the victory of a group of rebels who revolted against their government and brought about a revolution.” Castro’s eyes lit up – what could be more relevant to a revolutionary leader than Chanukah? That year Fidel Castro came to the synagogue and celebrated Chanukah with the Jewish community for the first time.
Fidel Castro was not the first person to ask the question, “What is Chanukah?” The question was asked over 1500 years ago by the rabbis of the Talmud. Strange, you think, that they would have to ask the question! It was there for the first time that we find the story about the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight nights. For the rabbis, the answer to the question, “What is Chanukah” was not that it commemorated the victory of a group of rebels who revolted against their government and brought about a revolution. For the rabbis Chanukah was about the power of G-d to act in history, to perform a miracle where the weaker party overcame the stronger one. The rabbis would emphasize that meaning in their choice for the prophetic reading for the Sabbath of Chanukah, which concludes, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My word, sayeth the Lord.” It was G-d’s will, not human agency that was responsible for the victory of the Maccabees. One should put ones trust not in fellow human beings, but in G-d, to bring about salvation.
By the 19th century, some Jews rebelled against that very message. These Jews concluded that it was ONLY through human agency that the Jewish people could escape the persecution of the diaspora and return to their ancestral homeland in what was then called “Palestine”. If they believed in G-d at all – and most did not – they were not about to wait for a miracle to return them to Zion. They found a new meaning in the celebration of Chanukah. They looked to the Maccabees as a model for a Jew who was physically brave, and who bore arms. They found in the story of Chanukah a model of the Jew who, through courage , determination and commitment, was able to overcome the odds and establish independent state. Most important, after years of defeat and persecution, the early Zionists found a model of a Jew who was victorious. To this day, this is the meaning of Chanukah for most Israeli Jews. As we know they continue to be called upon for sacrifice and service in order to survive in their hostile environment.
For American Jews, Chanukah has yet a different meaning. For us, Chanukah celebrates the freedom to practice ones religion without interference. Chanukah symbolizes our ability in the United States to celebrate a Jewish holiday alongside a Christian holiday as equals, in a society that tolerates and protects the practice of all religions. The Maccabees are models of those who fight against oppression of any kind. They are models of those who carry a light against the darkness of bigotry, of exclusion, of discrimination. Or, as President Obama recently said, Chanukah, “At its heart …… is about the struggle for justice in the face of overwhelming obstacles.”
Another revolutionary hero is said to have drawn strength and inspiration from the story of Chanukah. George Washington was encamped with his troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1776. Everyone is cold. Frostbite is everywhere. A depressed George Washington goes for a walk through the camp, seeking inspiration. He finds a Jewish member of the Continental Army lighting his menorah. The soldier explains Chanukah to Washington, tells of Judah Maccabee and the fight for freedom, and George Washington finds his courage in the process enough to stand up when his boat crosses the Delaware. Later, our first President sends that soldier a silver menorah as a gift of appreciation, along with a letter which says, Judaism has a lot to offer the world. You should be proud to be a Jew!
I suppose you can say that Chanukah is like a Rorschach ink blot — one can see many things in it. If you are Castro, you can relate to Chanukah as a story of revolution. If you are religiously oriented, you can understand it as the story of a miracle. If you are Israeli, Chanukah is an inspiration to continue the sacrifice in order to live as a free people in your land. If you are an American, Chanukah is the symbol of religious tolerance, pride and acceptance of the Jew into the fabric of American life. The meaning of Chanukah has evolved and changed over the years, to meet new historical circumstances and challenges. It will no doubt continue to take on new meanings in unforeseen ways in each age and in each retelling.

Shabbat Shalom