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Hanukkah is Jewish Pride Week

December 22, 2019 | by William Kolbrener

On Hanukkah, we proclaim our difference with special enthusiasm, refusing a ‘woke’ form of universalism which does not allow for Jewish distinctiveness.

As American Jews, we sometimes forget our difference, but anti-Semites, and today anti-Zionists, inevitably remind us. Although we may be excluded from intersectional gatherings – for not being different in just the right way – Jews, from the beginning of Western culture, and certainly at the time of the Greeks of the Hanukkah story, have been the rejected ‘Other.’

In my youth, Hanukkah observance – latkes, gelt and bright orange electric candles –seemed more like a way of showing our similarity to Christians neighbors than our difference. They had trees and mistletoe – and we had dreidels and menorahs. This sense of similarity – and even, in a positive sense, shared good spirits – added to the festive universalism of the time of year. But for all of Judaism’s emphasis on universalism – Jews are meant to be a Light to the Nations – Hanukkah is the time for stressing Jewish identity – pride in Jewish tradition, the Jewish People, and the land of Israel. Hanukkah is Jewish Pride Week.

The Jewish Pride of the Hasmoneans got under the skin of the Greeks, just as claims to Jewish exceptionalism gets under the skin of anti-Semites and anti-Zionists today. Of course, for the latter, the state of Israel is the most egregious and unforgivable expression of Jewish exceptionalism. In the time of Antiochus, the Assyrian Greek descendants of Plato and Aristotle exploited their claim towards universalism – the ‘woke’ culture of the time – as part of a program to wipe out Jewish expressions of difference: no Torah learning, no circumcision, no celebration of the new month. The Greeks sought to strike at the heart of Jewish difference – the Jews’ stubborn refusal to give up tradition in the face of a not-really-so-enlightened, and certainly intolerant, enlightenment culture.

The Greeks sought to make certain that Jews no longer frame their world views through their distinctive sacred texts; consecrate their male bodies through the ritual of circumcision; proclaim their distinctive version of time through the sanctification of the new month. Through all these activities, outlawed by the Greeks, Jews distinguished themselves by taking what might be seen as the merely material or secular – the body, the pursuit of knowledge, and time – and rendering them holy. Moreover, the Greeks destroyed ritual baths, mikvehs, undermining the sanctity of Jewish sexuality, and for good measure, raped Jewish women before their weddings. Jews, the Greeks reasoned, could not be certain of their heritage if their women had been defiled. The Greeks, like some anti-Semites today, were proud to publicize their version of enlightenment, and to tolerate the Jews, but only so long as they give up those practices that distinguished them, and showed their willingness to be assimilated into the ‘woke’ Greek intersectional ideal.

On Hanukkah, we take a lesson from the courageous Maccabees, and express Jewish singularity and difference. More that, on Hanukkah, we acknowledge that being chosen is not an embarrassment, but a responsibility – so we come out of the closet and advertise the miracle of the Hanukkah lamp, a sign of our triumph over Greek universalist attempts to eradicate us, and our commitment to being guided by a higher ideal – in every aspect of our lives.

Jewish law reflects the emphasis on ‘publication’ of the miracle. Hanukkah candles are to be lit at the time when people – non-Jews presumably – are returning home from the marketplace; they are also to be lit in a place that they have maximum visibility – not too high, not too low. And for many, the best way of performing the act is for every member of the household to light: every individual acknowledges and publicizes the miracle. Though the rabbis, pragmatic as they are, understand that history does not always go our way, and that sometimes, it is too dangerous to show courage. In that case, the law allows for lighting inside on the living room table. But even here, there is a sense of coming out – to oneself. As the medieval legalist Maimonides advises: ‘you are to show forth the miracle’ – even if you are alone in your room, lighting for perhaps the most important audience – for yourself.

Where at other times, we may try to just blend in, on Hanukkah, we publicize the miracle, and proclaim our difference through the light of the lamps. Even the sober and rationalist Maimonides gets excited by Hanukkah – a holiday he describes with unusual emphasis as ‘very beloved.’ Indeed, Jews proclaim their difference, at this time of year, with special enthusiasm, refusing a ‘woke’ form of universalism which does not allow for Jewish distinctiveness – whether through Jewish practice and thought or in support for Israel. Hanukkah is Jewish Pride Week – a time to come out of the closet and be proud.

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