A Festival of Rebellion Reminds Us What Matters Most
The undeserved prominence of Chanukah, due to coincidences of the calendar, has long served to obscure its revolutionary meanings. It has become a holiday of unintended ironies: that a group of religious anti-aesthetic zealots is now celebrated by consumerism; that those zealots, who were almost fundamentalist in their beliefs, are now heroes of religious freedom; but also that, despite the Maccabees’ zeal, the universalism of the “Festival of Lights” (reflected in Hindu, Christian and pagan holidays around the same, dark time of year) has ensured the holiday a place on the multicultural religious landscape.
Chanukah means “dedication” — the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, to be precise, and of an altar within the Temple, to be even more precise. The talmudists, accommodationists rather than zealots, downplayed the military and geographic aspects of the holiday and played up the light and the miracle. But the Temple had to be dedicated because the Maccabees felt it had been defiled — not only by the idols and sacrifices, but by the values for which Hellenistic civilization was perceived to stand: assimilation into dominant culture, the superficial cult of beauty (the Temple Mount had been turned into a gymnasium, the ancient world’s equivalent of the football stadium, except that all the athletes competed in the nude) and the atheistic, pleasure-principle civilization which the Greeks, rightly or wrongly, were seen to embody.
It’s tempting to turn the Syrian-Greeks and Hasmoneans into metaphors, and the “Athens-Jerusalem conflict” has been exhaustively analyzed, deconstructed, critiqued and restated by generations of scholars. Sometimes Athens is supposed to represent reason, and Jerusalem revelation. Sometimes Athens is surface, and Jerusalem substance. Sometimes Athens is about fate, and Jerusalem choice. And sometimes Athens is about a scientific worldview, whereas Jerusalem sanctifies even the ordinary.
In fact, the meanings slide back and forth so quickly that it begins to look like the act of choosing, rather than what is chosen, is what this holiday is really about.
A personal analogy: When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to “rededicate” my family’s synagogue. It seemed to me at the time that, while there were no Greek idols in place, there were plenty of Protestant ones: pews, hymns, a patriarchal God who punishes the sinful, not a whole lot of enthusiasm. To me, while all of the decoration was nice, it seemed to supplant some of the highest aspirations of Jewish religiosity. I wanted ecstasy, self-examination, transformation — and they were being subverted by the be-jeweled bourgeoisie.
A little later on, I came to appreciate that, for some (though still not for me), formality has its place. If sitting in a grand hall and listening to beautiful music makes one a more caring, moral person, neither I nor most Jewish traditions can really argue. I grew to see different temples in need of dedication: temples of complacency, intolerance or dogma; idolatries wherein our conceptions of God replace our direct awareness of the One That Is.
But more important than any one particular value is the belief that values — how we live, what we live for — matter.
In short, I’ve come to believe that the process of dedication — chanukah — is itself the message. Goethe said, “What matters most should never be at the mercy of what matters least.” Of course, Goethe didn’t have a mortgage. Most of us have to pay bills, cook meals, carry on the business of life, all of which can seem distant from “what matters most.”
Yet what matters most is present in each of those activities: We’re never as apart from God as we think. And because we are so near, we are able to respond, in our own lives, to this awareness. We can sanctify everything — if it’s paying bills, eating and living daily life, then we can practice honesty and generosity, kashrut and eco-kashrut, and just being a mentsh. We can constantly question and open ourselves up, asking ourselves in the image of the One who renews creation every day, what we know and don’t know, and how we are acting to make the world a more gentle place.
These are not novel questions, and that is precisely the point. A religious life is about remembering what should be obvious. We say that the home is a Temple, that the shul is a Temple, that the dinner table is a Temple. But we forget. Habits ossify into dogmas, guesses into beliefs. We need this rededication process to retrace our steps, and also to see if we may have lost our way.
To be sure, it is possible to be “dedicated” to very problematic causes — dedication is not, in itself, moral. But if we are serious about the Chanukah process, we can’t remain amoral (or immoral) for long, because we have to ask disruptive questions: Why is this thing more important than helping a person? Why does this idea justify violence? What do I really feel and why? Under such self-examination, idols tend to crumble.
Chanukah invites us to remember what matters and to rededicate ourselves to it. The process will either enrich what we are doing or motivate us to make important changes that need to be made. Most importantly, though, dedication is a dedication-to-meaning. It is a statement, if nothing else, that there is something to which we ought to be dedicated — that it matters whether we are true to ourselves or not, whether we capitulate to the whims of self-satisfaction and societal approval or whether, holding fast to something greater and deeper, we bridge the illusory gulfs that we ourselves create.
Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, and is the director of Nehirim, a spiritual retreat for gay and lesbian Jews (www.nehirim.org).