Chanukah begins at sundown on December 11. It’s a child’s holiday, with candles, songs, and, in the affluent west these days, presents. For adults, at least for me, it’s a bit more problematic–it’s a holiday that celebrates confusing things, the triumph of religion over reason, the cleansing of the Temple, the start of a theocracy not unlike current-day Iran’s.
Religion and politics in the Middle East in 167 BCE were just as complicated and deadly a combination as they’ve remained today. As David Brooks reports in the New York Times, many 2nd century BCE Jews embraced Greek culture, including elevating the power of reason over blind faith. Others were furious at the way in which science and art had taken the fundamentals out of that old time religion. And the Macabees belonged to this second group. When the Graeco-Syrian rulers took a step too far in defiling the Temple, the Macabees were able to rouse local opinion and begin a revolution against Syrian rule.
The history, with the restoration of the Temple, makes me proud, sad, appalled, breathstruck at the beauty and misery of it all. Yes, the lights burned again in front of the Holy of Holies, the sacrificial pigs were cleansed from the sacred space. But a century of enlightenment crashed to an end as religious rule was restored first with an iron, and then with an inept and corrupt fist. And within another 200 years, the Diaspora ushered in 2000 years of suffering, culminating in the Shoah. During those years, lighting Chanukah candles became a statement of courage. You put them in your window, even though that could invite the destruction of your home and the murder of your family, to show that you were not ashamed to be a Jew.
The parallels to American and Iranian religious fundamentalism are so pointed that I won’t dwell on them. (No, we don’t believe in evolution! Yes, climate change is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American people! rousing statements by members of Congress, candidates for President, and ministers.)
Meanwhile, some people are trying to make political hay out of the Obamas’ invitation to a holiday party in honor of Chanukah. The Obamas invited 50 fewer people than did the Bushes–they must be dissing the Jews. They didn’t say “Happy Chanukah” on the invitation–unlike the Bushes, who put a Christmas tree on theirs.
This time of year exhausts me with its fights over who is holier than thou. On the Christian side of the aisle, a member of the Tea Bag Party is trying to put a law on California’s books requiring every public school in the state to force all children to sing Christmas carols. The proposed law includes an enforcement clause requiring the state to litigate against schools that don’t comply. California is sinking under its budget deficit, but surely it can find room to put Christmas Carol Inspectors on the rolls.
The only way I can cope with the season is to turn away from the history of bloodshed, the warfare over holiness, and focus on the lights: the flame on the candles, the twinkling of the Christmas decorations. More light. More and more light. And with it, as the US ramps up for year eight of its own Middle Eastern wars, as the desolation continues in Darfur,
in Congo, Zimbabwe, and in Gaza, may we please find some little flame of peace that we can blow on and turn into a true fire–not of zealotry, but of justice. And may the One who makes peace in the High Places grant peace to us all.