Hanukkah 2013:

Hanukkah 2013 comes around Thanksgiving, which allows preachers and worship leaders to separate it from Christmas and the solstice.  I urge Unitarian Universalists to take it up on its own terms.  It is a very relevant topic for today's culture, and one that has a bit of a bite for some of our prevailing religiously liberal thought.

You know the story by now, so I won't retell it here.

The Maccabean revolt was the revolt of a small nation against an overwhelming, globalized Empire, which was forcing a cultural assimilation onto the people it conquered.  The festival of Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that occurred as the Maccabees reclaimed a sacred site of their culture from the conquerers.  Celebrating Hanukkah is celebrating the struggle to be different, and to resist those who hold superior military and economic power from suppressing and misappropriating an indigenous culture.

The contemporary critique from African American women of Miley Cyrus for misappropriating twerking is in line with the spirit of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah argues that God is on the side of cultural resistance to conquest, colonialism and domination.

The problem is that UU's and other religious liberals, have been misappropriating Hanukkah for decades, dragging it into our "Holiday Celebrations of Light in the Darkness" as though it was just one slightly different way of expressing the same, universal impulse.

There is a stage of understanding differences in culture that minimizes those differences: A stage in which a person thinks that "we are all alike beneath our trivial surface differences."  UU's have often approached Hanukkah in that spirit.  Some UU's don't like Hanukkah because they detect within the story a message that subverts our understanding of Universalism.  In some ways, we can be more in tune with the Romans who saw no problem in filling Zion's Temple with altars to many gods and goddesses.  

This is an excellent year to upend the traditional UU understanding of Hanukkah.  It's not a quaint old story about God's supernatural powers, but a story that reveals real contemporary fault lines in culture.  It is a story that also reads us as we read it: who are we in this story?  How have we acted in regards to other cultures and religions?


  1. Tom,

    I like where you go with it. I find the holiday not as easily redeemed. The Jews relinquished sovereignty to the Greeks with not on battle and had enjoyed years of discretionary treatment under Alexander then some of his successors. They had been able to freely uphold Jewish practice receiving support to develop local governing bodies as well as access to trade, education medicine, travel, theater, sports, art, and more. There is reasonable suspicion that what is reported of their treatment in the years leading up to the revolt under the Maccabees. Fromm the religious accounts themselves there where Jewish leaders and priests willing to accommodate the demands placed on them. The Maccabees are thought by many historians to have spent nearly as much time terrorizing other Jews who refused to hand over their young men and women to the militant rebel forces. When they finally gain control of the nation their religiously motivated campaign becomes instantly suspect since they establish a line of Hasmonean succession though they are not of the house of David. Even more troubling they consolidate the kings power in assuming the authority to apoint the High priest and his subsequent successors then do so from a non priestly line. The feast of dedication seems a much needed pr decision as they seek to subdue the militant forces they themselves enlisted sometimes through extortion and terror then isolated them in the mountain and desert areas where they sent years indoctrinating them and rousing them to violent devotion to ideals of religious and national purity

    The other side of Hanukkah you could say.

  2. The "other" other side of Hanukkah is that it is really only a relatively insignificant cultural holiday, not a significant religious one. It is not one of the holidays commanded in the Torah, and it does not celebrate any event recorded in the Tanakh. Its basis lies only in the non-canonical (in Jewish tradition) Books of Maccabbees.

    When my (lapsed UU-Quaker) mother was the assistant principal of a private school, and was planning a winter holiday assembly of the syncretic mash-up misappropriation variety that Tom describes, her Jewish school principal took her aside and warned her not to place Hanukkah on an equal footing with Christmas or present them as celebrations of similar themes or equivalent significance. "Look," she said, "what Christians don't understand is that Hanukkah is just not that important a holiday for Jews. It's basically a Jewish response to Santa Claus, so Jewish kids don't have to feel left out or less loved when Santa brings presents to all their Christian friends. If there wasn't Christmas, there never would have been a need for Hannukah."

    So in one sense, it's inauthentic misappropriation to try to attribute too much religious meaning to Hannukah, because Hannukah itself is inauthentic, at least as a religious observance. Yet in another sense, in an indirect but very authentic way, it really is about the universality of God's love, finding a way to express itself and fill gaps and restore wholeness, despite any obstacles.


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