Quick, when I say “Hanukkah,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

I admit that I thought of latkes before anything else. I light a menorah each year, but it’s an electric one (a safety matter, plus I got a really nice one at Bed Bath & Beyond), so there’s no scent of burning candles to captivate the senses. Latkes, on the other hand, bring with them a deep-fried aroma that wafts through the house and a taste that plays games with our tongues. Who can resist that?

The Decline of Hanukkah

Apparently, some can. In 2011, the United Jewish Appeal Federation released a survey of New York City-area Jews. They reported that 19% of New York Jews “never” light Hanukkah candles, while 68% do so “usually or always.”[1] They didn’t say whether more Jews eat latkes than light candles, but the implication seemed to be that Hanukkah is off the radar for many Jews.

The more comprehensive 2013 Pew survey of Jewish Americans did not include any questions about Hanukkah. But it revealed how many Jews keep a Christmas tree in their home, which might have an inverse correlation to Hanukkah observance. A full 32% of Jews surveyed had Christmas trees. Not surprisingly, 71% of Jews married to non-Jews had one; surprisingly, 4% of Orthodox also had one, and very surprisingly—hold on to your Hanukkah gelt—1% of ultra-Orthodox.[2] (Yes, I know. I’m still processing the idea of what a Satmar Hasid’s Christmas tree might mean.)

This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve, a sharp reminder that, for many Jews, Hanukkah has really become little more than an alternative to the Christmas celebrations that engulf society at large during this time of year.

But is it enough for Hanukkah to be the “instead of” holiday? And what about the fact that almost one-fifth of Jews (at least in New York) don’t even participate? To be frank: has Hanukkah passed its expiration date?

Truth or Truthiness?

In many ways, the story of Hanukkah is more idealized remembrance than historical fact—an example of what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” According to the familiar narrative, the evil Greco-Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes (rhymes roughly with “And I of course, I dip in tea”) vowed to wipe out Judaism, outlawed Jewish practices and sacrificed a pig in the Temple. The Maccabees courageously waged war against his armies, reclaiming the Temple after a few years of fighting, cleansing it and rededicating it to the service of God. The story of the oil burning for eight days came later, but hey, it’s a good story even without that part. The Jewish Rambos came through. Score one for Judaism.

Except that it didn’t exactly go down that way. For one thing, the Jewish people were divided over how much of the Greek lifestyle to adopt—how Greek to be. This dilemma has dogged the heels of Jews whenever they have found themselves living in an alien culture, which is to say, most of the time. And so we find that many Jews in second-century b.c.e. Judea took part in the Hellenistic (Greek-culture) gymnasium, where, unlike at 24 Hour Fitness, people worked out in the nude. Some Jews even surgically reversed their circumcisions to fit in. Hebrew names were swapped out for Greek ones, so that an Aaron might style himself Antigonus. While there were other Jews who raged against the Hellenistic machine, the Jewish community was certainly not of one mind on the matter.

Nor was the Jewish leadership immune from such division. The high priest Jason—a nice Greek name, that—planned to make Jerusalem into a Greek city and turn the Jews into Greek citizens. Historian Simon Schama observes, “The Seleucid king, Josephus writes, wanted the Jews to be like everyone else, but the desire sprang in the first place from the wholly Jewish high priest, Jason.”[3]

The truth, as opposed to the truthiness, is that the Greco-Syrian overlords did not originally have any plan to “Hellenize” the Jews. No orders, in the beginning, to abolish Judaism or to force Jews into being just like everyone else. This, of course, does not mean that they were cheerleaders for the Jews; their actions were squarely in line with their own interests. Nevertheless, one of the predecessors of Antiochus Epiphanes, Antiochus III, actually enacted laws to protect Judaism’s “ancestral laws and practices.”[4] (Epiphanes, by the way, was actually Antiochus IV, but he promoted himself with a title meaning, in a very rough paraphrase, “Here I am, a god!” Behind his back he was called Epimanes, or, in the Greek of the day, “nut job.”)

Priest Wars

What began to turn the tide was another king, Seleucus IV (rhymes with, “You spook us”), who had drained the royal coffers and, looking at his options, decided that he needed to violate some of those “ancestral laws and practices” by raiding the Temple for silver and gold. That was bad enough, but once Antiochus Epiphanes came to the throne, the Jewish leaders showed themselves to be no better than their oppressors. A succession of “Priest Wars” broke out to see who could offer a greater bribe to the Greco-Syrian overlords and win the coveted position of high priest. The high priesthood, as everyone “knew” but conveniently overlooked, was supposed to be hereditary, not the subject of day-trading on a priestly stock exchange.

One man outbid them all: Menelaus (born Menahem), who became the new high priest and was soon exercising a kind of ancient right of eminent domain, demolishing private homes in order to make way for a citadel. This would allow foreign troops to be conveniently lodged in Jerusalem, ingratiating Menelaus with the Greco-Syrians. Meanwhile Jason, Menelaus’ rival in bribery, mustered an army and, in hopes of pulling off a coup against both Menelaus and Antiochus, killed off the foreign troops of the citadel and any Jews whom he deemed disloyal to himself.

And this attempted coup, it seems, is what pushed Antiochus Epiphanes over the edge, though he may not have needed much pushing. It was only at this point that Antiochus banned Jews from reading Torah, circumcising their sons and keeping the Sabbath, and that the Maccabean revolt became a culture war. And truth be told, probably a lot of Jews didn’t even care.

Heroes with Clay Feet

And what about the heroes of Hanukkah, the Maccabees? Their descendants, known as the Hasmoneans, quickly grew arrogant in their power following the victory over Antiochus. Schama notes, “There is every sign that, just like the ego-giddy emperors of the pagan world, the Hasmoneans came to believe their own sense of divine appointment.”[5] We can add that not only was the priesthood meant to be a hereditary (and honorable!) position, the biblical “separation of powers” meant that no one could be a priest and a king simultaneously—an important protection conveniently overlooked in the centuries following the Maccabean victory, when the Hasmoneans declared themselves to be both. Long story short, in the end the heroic warriors had become power-hungry tyrants, and Hasmonean despotism led the Jews into a civil war.

When history is significantly more depressing than the tales we tell, what’s a Jew to do? Why tell a sanitized story about Maccabees and Judaism if it doesn’t reflect the facts?

Once again—has Hanukkah passed its expiration date?

In spite of Hanukkah’s checkered history, I can think of a number of reasons why Hanukkah should not be jettisoned, reasons that stem from being Jewish and a believer in Jesus.

God is Sovereign

To begin with, God is sovereign over all that happens to the Jewish people. In the middle of a wonderful biblical passage on hope, the prophet Jeremiah writes:

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:

“If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
from being a nation before me forever.”

Thus says the Lord:
“If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel
for all that they have done,
declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:35-37)

In majestic poetry, the God of Israel promises to preserve the people of Israel. We are meant to understand this in absolute terms, whether the Jews face external foes (Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus) or internal ones (verse 37, “for all they have done”—and the Hellenized priests and the Hasmoneans did plenty).

In spite of the bribes, the jockeying for power, and the blatant disregard for the separation of powers, the Jewish people are preserved from internal destruction. In the face of Antiochus’ efforts to subdue and suppress the Jewish faith—even if those actions were instigated by Jews—the Jewish people are again preserved. In times when Jews can be their own worst enemies or suffer at the hands of an oppressing power—and the two can coincide, as they did in the second century b.c.e.—God’s promises undergird our hopes.

This is vastly relevant today, when the rise of secularism, intermarriage and free-form spirituality in the Jewish community has alarmed mainstream Jewish leaders and raised anew the question of Jewish survival.

It was relevant in the past century, when Russian Jews under Soviet Communism grew up knowing little about Jewishness and much about atheism.

It was relevant in 18th-century Germany, when the rise of Reform Judaism seemingly threatened the continuity of the Jewish faith. It was relevant in Western European nations such as France, where secularism meant being Jews in private, if one so chose, and being Frenchmen in public.

Hanukkah is a beacon not of Maccabean power but of God’s. It celebrates the promise that all the oppression and assimilation in the world will not destroy the Jewish people.

The Jesus Reason

There is a second reason we should not be quick to throw Hanukkah overboard. It was during Hanukkah that Jesus and the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem had the following exchange.

At that time the Feast of Dedication [another name for Hanukkah, using the literal meaning of the name] took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.
So the Ioudaioi gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” (John 10:22-25)

The Greek word Ioudaioi in this passage has been unhelpfully rendered “Jews” in most modern translations. That rendering has often engendered an anti-Semitic reading of the New Testament. The “Jewish leadership” is a far better approximation to what is really meant.

Before this exchange, Jesus had spoken of himself as the “Good Shepherd,” drawing on Ezekiel 34, which refers to unworthy and corrupt leaders as “evil shepherds.” Now comes Hanukkah, and a question directed to Jesus by the leaders of the day. It seems likely that they were reflecting on the Hanukkah story as a tale of Maccabees victorious and Judaism resurgent. Jesus had his own quarrels with those leaders, who in his mind often walked in the footsteps of the compromisers and usurpers of a previous generation.

Here the Ioudaioi demand that Jesus come out with it and declare himself the Messiah, if that is what he claims to be. It may well have been a demand for him to “re-Maccabee the Maccabees.” If you are the Messiah, get in the ring and duke it out with Rome. (Bar Cochba tried just that in the 130s c.e. and only succeeded in getting himself killed and in making matters worse for the Jews.)

Jesus’ response can be unpacked in several ways, but in the context of Hanukkah and the rest of his ministry, Jesus declines the popular messianic role. “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” I’m not that kind of messiah. No heroic, sword-wielding, muscle-flexing warrior, this Jesus. Heroic in a different way, though—through sacrificial works of compassion and healing, preaching and teaching, ultimately through laying down his own life, not by spilling the blood of Romans. If the Hasmoneans and much of the first-century leadership were not good shepherds, Jesus would come to be the true and good leader—refusing to jockey for power, but upholding God’s word and sacrificially laying down his life.

In celebrating Hanukkah, we remind ourselves that our ultimate savior is not Judah Maccabee, but our humble servant Messiah. Jesus spoke on the Feast of Dedication, a name meant to recall the reconsecration of the Temple to the service of God. If the Temple where God dwelt could be dedicated to God, surely Yeshua—in whom “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”—showed his dedication to God’s service by his life, death and resurrection.

Standing in Solidarity

And finally, as we celebrate Hanukkah, we stand in solidarity with our people, yes, even those for whom Hanukkah is only an anti-Christmas. For while the yearly recitation of the Hanukkah story idealizes and simplifies history, it still retains a core of critical mass: the Jewish people matter and the Jewish God matters. We want to join hands with our people when they rejoice and when they mourn.

After all, the rituals, as opposed to the original story, of the holiday came long after the Maccabees: the lighting of the nine-branched menorah recalls the legend that the lampstand in the Temple miraculously burned for eight days when the tank was almost empty—a legend that didn’t arise until Talmudic times. The latkes fried in oil, or, in other traditions, the sufganiyot or fried donuts, likewise remind us of the same miracles of the oil. One ritual for the eyes, another for the stomach. And dreidels come still later, the game of “gambling” for chocolate coins likely arising in medieval Germany. By celebrating Hanukkah, we connect not only with the Jews of Hasmonean times, but those who came seven centuries later, and those who came another thousand years beyond that.

Hanukkah speaks to the ongoing presence of Jews in the world over the millennia. When the letters on the dreidel are said to acrostically spell out “A great miracle happened there,” we remember the miracle of Jewish preservation—and of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, whose light continues to shine brighter than any menorah.

[1] UJA Federation of New York. Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011: Comprehensive Report (June 2012), pp. 25, 114. Online at www.metcouncil.org/site/DocServer/JCSNY2011ComprehensiveReport.pdf

[2] Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans (October 1, 2013), p. 80. Online at http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

[3] Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC–1492 AD (CCC/Harper Collins, 2013), location 2255, Kindle edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., location 2353.