This is the time of year when people argue about the meaning of Chanukah.
It's an old question. Mai chanukah? is how the rabbis begin the Talmud's discussion of the holiday: "What is Chanukah?" Maybe the simplest answer is, it's a multivalent holiday; it always has been.
There are of course many ways to tell the Chanukah story and the ways we do are not unrelated to who we are. Every community and generation interprets Chanukah in its own image. For us there are a number of obvious contenders. For American Jews it is most often about religious freedom from tyrants. For Israelis it is about routing the armies of a dominating empire and winning back Jewish sovereignty. For traditional Jews it is about a fight against assimilation. Hasidic Jews take another path and read the story allegorically as a story about seeking one's inner life and rededicating oneself to that small burning candle. Indeed, every generation asks what the Rabbis ask when they open their short conversation on the holiday... "Mai Chanukah?" -- What is Chanukah?
(So writes Rabbi Steve Greenberg in a d'var Torah which is available online here.)
So what's the story with Chanukah? One answer can be found in scripture -- though not mine. The apocryphal books of Maccabees (written in Greek) tell the story of the Hasmonean dynasty. (These books are considered part of the Catholic Bible, though not the Protestant Bible or Jewish Tanakh.) Anyway: those books tell the story of the wicked Antiochus IV who looted the Temple, alongside the story of the Israelites who assimilated to Greek ways and the other Israelites who slaughtered them. Matthias and his family destroyed illicit altars and forcibly circumcised babies; his oldest son Judah led the rebels to victory.
Read one way, Maccabees offers a story about freedom fighters casting off religious oppression. Read another way, it's a story about religious extremists slaughtering their accomodationist or assimilationist neighbors. Either way, the odd thing is that although the war ended in the early spring, the Maccabees didn't seek to rededicate the temple until deep midwinter. Apparently they were waiting for divine intervention. When Judah finally did decide to rededicate the temple, he chose 25 Kislev -- the date of the first sacrifice Antiochus had offered to his gods. And just as Solomon had dedicated the First Temple in an eight-day celebration during the festival of Sukkot, so Judah decided to rededicate it during an eight-day celebration which is called, in Maccabees II, "Sukkot in Kislev." Chanukah, in other words, was initially conceived as a kind of second Sukkot. (Sukkot II: Electric Boogaloo?)
I grew up on a sanitized version of the story (minus the bloody massacre of Hellenized Jews) and didn't read the version that's in Maccabees until I was in my thirties. I suspect most Jews are in that same boat, because when the Tanakh was canonized the books of Maccabees didn't make the cut. Why not? One plausible reason is that the rabbis who canonized the Tanakh were already uneasy with the Maccabees' story of military might. The attempted revolt in 70 CE resulted in the destruction of the second Temple; then came the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire in 134-135 CE. By the time the Talmud was compiled, it was clear that resisting imperial power had devastating results. They didn't want to enshrine as holy writ a story which might encourage Jews to resist and be slaughtered.
Once the Diaspora began and the balance of power shifted strongly toward the non-Jews in the many places where Jews were scattered, it became impolitic (not to mention ironic and painful) to celebrate military might which no longer existed. Maybe that's why Chanukah gets only a scant few lines in Talmud -- and what's discussed there is not the military battle but the miracle of the single cruse of sanctified oil which lasted for eight days. Presto: with that reframing, the whole story of Chanukah shifts. It's no longer about a band of freedom fighters (or violent anti-assimilationist guerillas) prevailing against a great army. Now it's about the leap of faith involved in kindling the eternal light in the temple, of trusting that God will provide.
In the Hasidic understanding, Chanukah becomes a festival celebrating the internal redication in which each of us can engage. Hasidic teachers make much of the line from Exodus, "Build Me a temple and I will dwell within them" -- within them, e.g. not in the temple but in our very hearts. Chanukah is the time when we're called to cleanse impurities from our hearts, to rededicate ourselves to the neverending work of making holiness manifest in the world. Nurturing holy sparks, kindling light in the darkness: these take on profound spiritual meaning when we remember that light is associated with chesed, God's abundant lovingkindness -- and that the first thing created, at the beginning of time, was (spiritual/metaphysical) light. Our task is to purify our hearts so that divine light can shine in and through us.
(For another Hasidic interpretation of Chanukah, I point you back to The smallest miracle, a post I made about some of the Sefat Emet's teachings on Chanukah back in 2003.)
Of course, in the American imagination Chanukah has been enlarged so that it can serve as a counterpart to the gift-giving extravaganza that is contemporary Christmas. (For historical perspective on that, I recommend The Comeback Holiday in Reform Judaism Magazine -- I am amazed by lines like "The purchase of Christmas gifts, commented the Jewish Daily Forward in 1904, 'is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.'") Apparently Chanukah began to manifest as a gift-giving holiday in the 1920s, and by the 1940s that minhag was securely lodged in the American Jewish imagination. That Chanukah is a time for giving gifts has become another set of lenses through which to view the festival.
Still another interpretation holds that Chanukah, chag urim (the festival of lights), arose when and how it did out of the natural human need to celebrate light in a time of great (northern hemisphere) darkness. (Sorry, antipodean readers. This interpretation naturally doesn't work so well for y'all.) Reb Arthur Waskow has suggested that Chanukah was rooted in "solstice-festival envy." (He alludes to this in The meaning of the Hanukkah oil, though to read his whole argument you'll need to delve into Seasons of Our Joy.)
Some symbols are so primary that purported "meanings" can only prove inadequate. Light in the dead of winter, victory when it had seemed impossible, more than enough when there had been far too little, few against many, the freedom to be -- these are the essence, and the stories built around them only so much adornment -- and therefore alterable.
So argues Arnold Eisen, in the marginal commentary to the Chanukah chapter in The Jewish Holidays. The whole chapter is good, but I love the marginal notes -- like Rabbi Everett Gendler's wonderings about what would have happened "if the light and vegetation motifs of Hanukkah had early coalesced around those green branches described in 2 Maccabees rather than around clay or cast menorahs. Might our present menorah, rather than being an abstract or stylized tree of light, have been an actual illuminated tree?" (Hee.)
Chanukah has been different things to different people over time; it's different things to different people even now. That's a lot of layers of context for what is, in the grand scheme of things, a fairly minor Jewish holiday. But the multivalent character of the holiday speaks to something I deeply love about Judaism: that the tradition is always multivocal. That there's always more than one answer to every question. That our interpretations change over time, as our understandings of God and Torah and our relationship with the world change over time. That a holiday which could start out as a commemoration of military victory could turn into a holiday celebrating a leap of faith, into a holiday inviting us to purify our hearts, into a chance to hang out and eat fried foods and sing songs and exchange presents, into all of the above at the same time.
The fact that different Jewish communities have found various meanings in Hanukkah drive home the truth about all religious rituals: They thrive only when they mean something to people, when they externalize deeply felt concerns. Often, when we are attached to a ritual, we will infuse it with special meaning or manifest some latent significance in it. In other cases a ritual may fall out of use for lack of contemporary impact. Yet, the Jews have had the wisdom to keep even underutilized rituals on the books. As circumstances change, we may rediscover their power at some time later on.
That's Rabbi Everett Gendler, writing again in the margins of The Jewish Holidays. I couldn't agree more.
So Mai Chanukah? The question I really want to ask is: what is Chanukah for you?