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What Are We Actually Celebrating On Hanukkah?

In less than a week, we will light candles to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah.

Hebrew school pop quiz: What miracle are we celebrating?

Classic Hebrew school answer: According to the Talmud, it’s that a small jar of oil lasted for 8 days.

But this is not mentioned in any historical record (see the Book of Maccabees or Josephus). And even according to the Talmud, the candles are required to go in the window for others to see. If this is only to remember the miracle of oil, why not light it on the kitchen table?

There’s a second, more political Hanukah miracle that may be more relevant to commemorate today.

The Maccabees revolted against the government-enforced Hellenization of Judaism. It’s a complicated history, but the Maccabees stood up for our right to not assimilate and won. Another lesson of Hanukkah, very different than the universal “finding hope in darkness” one, is that we can’t stand up for those who are oppressed for being different while simultaneously trying to shed our own “differentness.”

Does this mean Jews living in a Christian country shouldn’t listen to Christmas music or have Christmas trees? There’s a fine line between integrating into the culture around you and completely losing your identity. I think it’s up to each of us to draw the line for ourselves, so long as that line of differentiation is being drawn somewhere.

This is why the Talmud says we have to put our Hanukkah candles in the window and not on our kitchen table. The Hanukkah candles are a symbol for our courage to be different – we display that proudly to the world.

Lighting candles in DC during Hanukkah this year might not be particularly brave. But there will be moments when identifying as Jewish will be. The right choice isn’t always to be loud and proud – the Talmud itself acknowledges that there are times when it is too dangerous to light in public. Nevertheless, we have to be willing to embrace being different if we are to fulfill our covenantal mission of dignifying the differences in others.

Hanukkah means dedication. It technically refers to the rededication of the Temple back in the day. Perhaps we can dedicate ourselves this Hanukah to identifying as Jewish – not only when it’s convenient but more importantly when it isn’t.

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