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More on Chanukah

Chanukah has two stories: one about a military victory, the other about a flagon of sanctified oil that miraculously burned for eight days. I love the second story: it's ripe for contemporary interpretation, and its message is appealingly universalizable. Rededication of holy places! Light in the darkness! That stuff is right up my alley. But the more I learn about the first story, the war story, the queasier it makes me. I've been trying for days to articulate my mixed feelings about the Chanukah stories, and to figure out how I want to relate to this complicated narrative yin-yang.

The story of the Hasmonean revolt as chronicled in Maccabees is challenging for me. It's a lot messier and less pleasant than the sanitized version I learned as a kid. When people brandish that narrative at this season, as a rallying-cry against assimilation, I want to ask, "have you actually read the story you're trumpeting?" Because while Antiochus was clearly a schmuck, the Maccabees met violence with violence, slaughtering their coreligionists who had assimilated into Hellenized society. That's not a story I want to champion.

Of course, neither did the rabbis. The books of Maccabees aren't in the Jewish Bible, which might be an indication of some mixed feelings about this story from way back. And the sages of Talmudic times made a conscious decision to shift focus away from the military story and toward the parable of the oil. Maybe they, like me, were uncomfortable with the implications of celebrating violent zealotry. Maybe they wanted to teach us to privilege the spiritual over the historical. Or maybe they were worried that being seen as militaristic and liable to engage in guerilla warfare would have been dangerous for the Jewish community in those days.

Regardless of the practical reasons for the paradigm shift, changing the focus of the story has repercussions for us spiritually. We turn away from glorifying the clash of swords on shields, and celebrate instead the increase of light in a time of darkness, the sanctification and restoration of a holy space after hope was gone. The holiday becomes about faith and en-light-enment, symbolized by the rededication of the Temple -- which in turn can lead us to ask which of our connection-points with God need rededication at this season. I like the newer story, but I can't shake the feeling that I should be engaging with the older one, too. Only trouble is, every time I do so, I like Chanukah less.

I'm not alone in this wrestle. In her post moving past two-mindedness, Danya of Jerusalem Syndrome suggests that a mature relationship with this holiday should seek to integrate the two stories and our two responses to them. She writes:

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God Godself deserves. Is there any reason that I can't be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemming the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous?) survival?

Or, to put it another way, perhaps our question is not, "How can we possibly celebrate God and miracles if God didn't save our pure souls from the evil hands of others?" but, rather, How might we celebrate God and miracles while acknowledging the many complex ways in which our own hands have impacted history?

(Read her whole post here.) I think she's right. Honestly, there's real resonance in the place where the holiday's two stories meet: the end of the military campaign, the moment of darkness before the Temple's lamps were re-lit. This year, that's the moment I find myself returning to, as I seek to reconcile one story with the other. Chanukah shows us that God is present even in the darkness, even in places human actions have desecrated, if we will only strike a spark and believe. Chanukah teaches us that even where death and bloodshed have hidden God's presence, we can rekindle compassion and wisdom again.

And maybe there's something we can learn from the way the two stories fail to mesh for us, the way the seam between them shows. Chanukah is proof that when the old stories fail us, we can craft new ones, and find God therein.

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