For Our Christian Friends, the Message of Chanukah
The Jewish year proceeds through its cycle of festivals and holy days, each with its unique relevance, private or public. The Sabbath, for example, a 25-hour break from electronics and automobiles, is more relevant than ever in a culture twisted by the Internet and exhausted by commuting.
The feast of Purim, recalling the genocidal plot against the Jews by Persian officials described in the Book of Esther, haunts our understanding of current events in the Middle East.
But it is Chanukah, celebrated this week from December 6 to 14, that sounds most as if it had been torn from the daily news headlines. A plain retelling of the events in Israel of 167—160 years before the Common Era almost sounds like it had been fabricated as a parable by a partisan in our contemporary culture wars.
The historical context may seem foreign, but only at first glance. It is an internal conflict, a civil war, pitting Jews as advocates of Greek civilization against Jews loyal to their inherited tradition. The “Greeks” in the story are actually Hellenist Jews, enamored of the sophisticated culture of the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire, with its emphasis on physical fitness, aesthetic pursuits, and a worldly paganism over monotheist spiritual purity.
In contrast to the events of Purim, the opponents at the outset did not seek slaughter. They only insisted on the Jews giving up certain traditions that slighted a more progressive, urbane, multicultural outlook. Jews could go on being Jewish, as long as their practice of their faith did not deny the validity of polytheism or impinge on key aspects of public life. Given the emphasis on public nudity in gymnasium exercises, it is not surprising that circumcision was found to be particularly offensive.
The progressives, though, pushed too far. And the traditionalists, for their part, failed to see strategic retreat, as in what some Christians now call the “Benedict Option” (the formulation belongs to Rod Dreher), as a realistic possibility.
In case they hadn’t made their point clearly enough, the Greeks defiled the Jerusalem Temple by sacrificing a pig there. Forces led by the priest Judas Maccabeus, who today would be called the “fundamentalists” in the story, eventually carried the day and purified the Temple.
Seeking to relight the Menorah, a candelabrum described in the Torah, the Maccabees found only a single flask of oil that had not been deliberately fouled by the Greeks. It still had the High Priest’s seal on it, but was enough for just one day. It would take eight days to obtain a fresh, pure supply.
The Jews could have divided the flask into eighths and made it last. However, to show their dedication — “Chanukah” means “dedication” — they used the whole flask, which miraculously lasted for eight days.
Jews remember this by lighting candles on eight successive nights, replicating the wondrous event. Jewish law advocates lighting the domestic Menorah in the most prominent, visible place in the home. My family does so in the window closest to our front door. Passersby should see the candles burning in your window — an “in your face” gesture indicating that in the end, there is no possibility of withdrawal from conflict. It is a gesture that as much as says, “Here we are. We’re not backing down. Come and get us if you want.”
The Menorah in the Temple was, interestingly, later carried off as spoils by the successors of the Greeks, the Romans, after looting Jerusalem in the year 70. It is prominently depicted in Rome on the inside of the triumphal Arch of Titus. A Jew in modern times, perhaps legendarily, chalked some eloquent graffiti in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai” — “The Jewish People Lives.”
There has hardly been a time in history when Chanukah, somewhere in the world, wasn’t risky. This year the Paris police reportedly urged Jews to refrain from outdoor Menorah-lighting, as a safety precaution so as not to draw dangerous attention from French Muslims.
In the end, the Jewish outreach movement Chabad illuminated an enormous Menorah in front of the Eiffel Tower, without incident, attended by six thousand people and with congratulatory remarks from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Some Christians today seem startled to find the “Greeks” of our culture waging a war of laws and court decisions against them, at the same time that Muslim terrorists with very different weapons have Americans and Europeans in their sights. The experience may be new and disturbing to many, but not to the Jews. For our Christian friends, I suggest, the message of Chanukah might be twofold.
First, patterns of history repeat themselves. In the phrase from Deuteronomy, “Man is a tree of the field” (20:19). A tree is the right metaphor. As the historian Oswald Spengler observed, cultures rise and develop following a largely familiar path, like an oak that rises from an acorn, growing tall and stately, later growing old. Far from being a straight line, the trite succession of “ancient-medieval-modern,” history has played out many times in many places in much the same ways, many trees in a field.
“Jewish” historical experiences can occur again, in remarkably similar form, distant from where they first did so, with actors who aren’t Jews but Christians, secularists, and others. The story of Chanukah should be eerily familiar to those living through the present moment in the United States. Christians can, I think, readily and rightly locate themselves in the drama, beset by “Greeks” who demand their spiritual subversion, who see a materialist ideology as the correct successor to the Christian culture of the West.
There is always a would-be successor, claiming to fulfill the promises of the past. Atheists today insist that they, not Christians, are the inheritors of the legacy of Western scientific investigation and discovery, the unfettered search for truth. The claim is not only incorrect, but illiterate. So it goes.
Second, while this may be regrettable, there is no Benedict Option, no viable retreat. The conflict today with our “Greeks” is a war of ideas, fought with words, not literally to the death but to certain victory or certain surrender. Our Greeks offer no compromise, no peace in our time, anymore than radical Muslim terrorists do.
So light the candles, and brighten the night. We are here. People of faith live. Come and get us if you dare.