What does Hannukah Hold for Adults?

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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So – can I interest you in Hannukah?  Having talked Fred into that duet, you know I’m going to give it my best shot.  Because despite the many ways we can – and should – have fun with Hannukah, it’s really about a lot more than ‘oil that burned quite slowly.’  In fact Hannukah was a lot about issues and themes we’re struggling with again, right now, right here.  Identity.  Changing definitions of cultures and creeds.  Nationalism.  Imperialism.  Schisms isolating and inciting people and nations.    Those scourges are all active among us in our country.  And they are widespread across our world, especially right now, in the wake of days of rage, we along with Israel and Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank, and many other nations responding to the President’s declarations regarding Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.   We can’t hear, or think about the Hannukah story right now, without thinking about all the threat and emotion and lives and warfare that alive again now as they were then.  We need history to understand our present, to understand all that is new and unprecedented, and all that is old and echoing.

“The Hannukah story starts with Alexander the Great, who united many countries, from Greece east as far as India and as far south as Egypt into his grand empire.  His MO was to conquer a country, allow it to retain its traditions as long as they hailed him king, and then incorporate Greek city-state structural and cultural ways into the conquered nation’s organization.  This meant philosophy, medicine, libraries, sports stadia, and also some Greek or Hellenistic religious elements.  The Jews of Judea explained to him that they couldn’t worship Alexander as god-king according to Egyptian prophecy and tradition because of the strict Jewish monotheistic tradition.  Alexander respected their stand, and his reign ended up going down in Jewish history as a fairly benevolent one.

When he died and his generals divided his empire among them, Ptolemy took Egypt and also Judea, among other regions, and continued Alexander’s policy, as did his descendants for a few generations.  This made for a largely peaceful era, but one with growing cultural tension as more and more Jews were assimilated into Hellenistic culture.  Some were spending time in the agora (the market) and the gymnasium rather than the temple, and some went so far even as to ignore important rules of everyday observant Jewish practice in their families and homes.

After a time, a new high priest of Jerusalem was named, and this new high priest, Jason, was very much a champion of Hellenization.  His appointment broke with tradition, he’d essentially bought his appointment from the King, and inflamed the Jews who were alarmed at these developments luring people away from Jewish ways.

As these tensions simmered, something brought them to a head.  The Syrian King, Antiochus IV, also a descendent of one of Alexander’s generals, decided he wanted Judea for himself.  The Ptolemies warred with him, but lost, and Judea came under his sway.  His reign was fairly brutal and had no tolerance or respect for Jewish ways.  He looted the temple, forced people to worship him as divine king in the temple, to sacrifice pigs, a ritually unclean animal, and filled the country and the capital, Jerusalem, with troops to enforce his rule.

The people were desperate, and not surprisingly, they did not agree about how to respond in their desperation. There were now three distinct groups forming to meet the times.  The Chasidim felt that all this persecution and suffering were signs of God’s displeasure because of all the assimilation that had been happening, that in some way this was deserved punishment, and that the only right response was to endure and be even more pious in the face of the persecution.  Thus, they thought, they could earn back God’s love and an eventual change in their circumstances. The Hasmoneans were angry and wanted to fight to reclaim their land and ways, arguing that God helped those who helped themselves.  The Pharisees were concerned with developing a better sense of laws and bible interpretation that might show a new way to negotiate this terrible and complicated situation.  These groups argued with each other and did nothing else until finally the Hasmoneans, led by a man named Mattathias and his five sons began to fight, first in a town called Modiin where Mattathias was the local Jewish priest.

Inexplicably, the Hasmoneans won their first battle, and their victory against trained, veteran and well-equipped troops seemed nothing short of miraculous.  Indeed, it seemed God must be on their side, otherwise, how could this have happened?  Their victory won many Jews, even many Chasidim, over to their side and swelled their ranks enough to allow them to begin a campaign to chase the Syrians out of Judea.  They won the war, ritually cleansed and rededicated the temple, rekindling the sacred fire, and that is what the Hannukah tradition of lighting candles actually celebrates.   (Sometimes people think Hannukah’s timing is a recasting of a pagan solstice tradition, or more popularly, that it commemorates the miraculous burning of an oil lamp for eight days with only one day’s worth of oil.  That oil lamp story is from the Talmud and is a later rabbinic addition to the story.  In fact, Hannukah is the only Jewish holiday that is rabinnically-ordained rather than biblically-ordained, because it all occurred within recorded, written, human-scale history.  And the date Hannukah is celebrated is the date the temple was rededicated over the course of 8 days of ritual and celebration.)” (Hannukah for Adults, 2003)

Of course history continued forward.  Eventually the Hasmoneans’ descendants lost the respect and trust of the people.  Things evolved into other events we’ll talk about soon in this meeting house.  But for now – how the Hannukah story echoes disturbingly in our modern ears, with the impact of jingoistic imperialism, the conflicts between people who can’t unite for the greater good, the reactionary and violent responses to the changing times and challenges of multiculturalism, the familiar conflicted conjunction of the richness of tradition and the inevitability of change.

One of the four ancient documents that tells the Hannukah story is Four Maccabees, written just a few hundred years after the rededication of the temple in about 160 BCE.  It doesn’t just tell the story, it uses the story as a lens for a lesson about the supremacy of religious rationality over passions.  These are the opening lines:

“The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy.
For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue — I mean, of course, rational judgment.“

So here’s what I have to ask you – does that sound Jewish? – like a faithful declaration of belief in the one true god and the faith and traditions of the Jewish people?  Or does it sound like the introduction to a Socratic dialogue on a philosophical question about what is good and what is true?  Oh the irony! This treatise, written in the long wake of the revolt when, supposedly, Jewish culture and belief triumphed over the Hellenizing influence of the Greeks – by its very form and nature contradicts the story it tells.

I look at the Hannukah story from so far away and so long ago, and I see our own nation and people reflected in it.  I see our world reflected in it.  I see Jerusalem now, as then, riven and suffering, from ancient loyalties and modern weapons.   Like the Jews in the time of the events of Hannukah, we are divided about what to do in this world that is so anguished and angry.  Some of us, both progressives and conservatives, like the assimilated Jews, want to move with the dominant forces in society because of their undeniable potency and because we seek stability and comfort for our families and our lives – as is natural, and human, and eternal.  Some of us, both progressives and conservatives, like the Chasidim, want to focus on improving our own lives and ways, so that they reflect what we believe in, in the hopes that our modeling better ways to live will be enough to move the world toward justice and safety.  Some of us, both progressives and conservatives, like the Hasmoneans, want to fight and take action against what we see as the dominant forces and compel the world into the shape we believe in – and for some, even violence and criminal activity are a legitimate path to that end.   None of these are simple positions.  They can look different depending on who inhabits them, who defines what’s dominant, what’s a better life, what justice and safety look like.  They’re not stupid positions. They are not even inherently right or wrong – only history and how they play out will generate our sense of their value and morality.

What are we?  Are we Assimilated, Chasidim, Hasmoneans, Pharisees?  Are we Hellenists, Syrians, sideline observers?  What are our choices, and what will we choose?  Our present holds war, uncertainty, oppression, religious conflict, corruption and dysfunction in government, terrorism, schisms that tear at families, communities, nations – and Hannukah reminds us that this is not new.  Hannukah’s story is real, and that is its caution and that is its hope.  Hannukah acknowledges the reality of suffering and still affirms hope.  It recognizes the persistence of oppression and still affirms renewal.  And in the end, Hannukah reminds us that it is truly possible for the miraculous and real transformative power of faith and courage and human endeavor to overcome distrust and despair, to face down even autocrats and armies.  Remember therefore, the eight lights of Hannukah: faith, courage, striving, sacrifice, loyalty, reconciliation, restoration, celebration.

Hold onto them, to the power to overcome the defiling of what is sacred, the power to create a new future with reconciliation and restoration at its core.  Do you remember what that has felt like in the past?  Reconciliation?  Restoration?  The opening and overflowing of your heart.  Such opening and overflowing that people dance in the streets, across all their differences, in their nation’s capital?  I hope so.  I remember it.  Hope and healing for our people and our nation will come, if we stay committed and courageous – especially now.  Happy Hannukah.  Amen.