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Is Hanukkah a Religiously Significant Holiday?

December 15, 2019 | by Emuna Braverman

Hanukkah is far more than the Jewish Christmas. It is the holiday of the spiritual survival of the Jewish people.

Mark Oppenheimer is perfectly happy to be wished a Merry Christmas (hence the title of his recent Wall Street Journal article, “I’m Jewish. Please wish Me a Merry Christmas”). In his essay Oppenheimer throws out an aside – quite literally, it was in parentheses – that gets him into trouble. After acknowledging that Hanukkah is his “seasonal holiday”, he writes: “(albeit one of relatively little religious import).”

I wanted to write a letter to the editor, but I have more confidence about my article getting published here!

His casual aside just made me really sad. Because it is obvious that Mr. Oppenheimer has no idea what a rich, deep and spiritually important holiday Hanukkah actually is. And he’s not alone. Having the misfortune to occur around the same time as the flashier Christmas celebration, the meaning of this holiday has unfortunately gotten lost in the shuffle.

It is not just our “seasonal holiday”. And it most certainly is not of “relatively little religious import.” In fact, the opposite is true. If it weren’t for the Maccabees, none of us would be here today. Hanukkah is the holiday that celebrates the survival of the Jewish people – and most particularly not our physical survival but our spiritual one.

Unlike many other times in Jewish history, the goal of the Greeks was not the genocide of the Jewish people. They did not want to wipe Jews off the map. They were not looking to create a country that was Judenrein. What they wanted to destroy was Judaism. What they wanted to eliminate was the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

To that end, they forbade learning Torah and the celebration of Shabbos, circumcision and the sanctifying of the new moon, particularly those commandments that spoke to the partnership between God and the Jewish people.

For a nation that wanted to exalt and celebrate the body, the intellect and beauty, that thought that man was the be-all and end-all, the Jewish people, a nation that insisted on a Heavenly creator, on the existence of the soul with demands that countered the material, was a real buzz-kill. Those ideas had to go.

But not the people themselves. They could be easily integrated into the broader Greek culture. And so began a very successful program of assimilation with many Jews being seduced by the thoughts, ideas and practices of the Greeks. So powerful was the pull that it was not unheard of for Jews to undergo reverse circumcision procedures so they could participate comfortably alongside their neighbors in the Olympic games – which were played in the nude.

It was Yehudah Maccabee and his family who had the foresight to see where this was heading, who knew that if they didn’t fight now, then the battle was lost. They recognized that if someone didn’t fight for a relationship with God and Torah, for the preservation of Jewish values, there would soon be nothing left to save.

When I ask my students to describe the Maccabees to me, everyone imagines strong, athletic young men. “Have you ever seen an orthodox Yeshiva bachur?” I ask them, someone who spends all his time indoors pouring over the books of the Talmud, someone with long side curls and no muscles to speak of? Those were the Maccabees. All Jews alive today owe their very existence to them.

The Jewish people exist thanks to their determination to stand up for what’s right, their willingness to take on the whole Greek army despite the daunting odds, their understanding that without a relationship with God we have nothing left. Hanukkah is the holiday where we take a stand against assimilation, against blending in, against accepting the world’s often negative view of us and we stand up for our values, our nation, our land and most of all our relationship with the Creator of the world.

The war lasted many long years. The original Maccabees did not survive the fighting. But we are their descendants. We are the inheritors of their determination, their willingness to fight, their recognition that the Jewish people had something worth fighting for.

No, Mr. Oppenheimer, Hanukkah is not a holiday of relatively little religious import. On the contrary, it is a holiday of great religious import. It is the holiday of the spiritual survival of the Jewish people.

It is a shame that what the Maccabees fought so long and hard for, literally gave their lives to, is getting lost in the openness of the melting pot of America today. Perhaps we need some modern Maccabees.


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