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Hannukah Lights Can Symbolize Non-Violence Too

Jews all over the world are lighting the candles on their Hanukkah menorahs this week to symbolize -- what?  Well, they don't all have the same answer.  They all agree that the holiday commemorates the victory of the Maccabees and their followers, Judeans who ousted the foreign emperor Antiochus Epiphanes after he had seized the great Temple in Jerusalem. But why did those ancient Jews fight?  What were they risking their lives for? 

Some say it was for freedom to practice their religion as they wished. Some say it was for freedom to govern themselves as they wished. Some say political and religious freedom are woven together so tightly that there is no real difference between the two.  

In fact it's not likely that the Jews who won that victory in 165 BCE actually valued freedom of any kind very much, at least not freedom as we understand it: the ability to make individual autonomous decisions. What they valued was the ability and willingness of their whole nation to be subservient to their father in heaven and his laws. Today some Jews still say Hanukkah symbolizes dedication to obeying Jewish law.

There are plenty of more modern interpretations too.  For example, the influential Jewish leader Edgar Bronfman reads the Maccabees' story of triumph against all odds as a tale about the power of hope. He wants it to spur Jews to create a practice based not in fear but in hope. Rabbi Arthur Waskow sees the ancient miracle story -- which says that one day's worth of lamp oil burned for eight days -- as a symbol of the need to cut US oil consumption by seven-eighths, by the year 2020. 

This debate about the meaning of Hanukkah reminds us that a religious community is rarely as unified or monolithic as we might think. Just as the meaning that we attach to gift-giving changes over the years, so a religious community's values change, although the material symbols are more likely to remain the same. Even at any one time the community is likely to be disagreeing about its values, which means it is disagreeing about the proper interpretation of its symbols.

In fact, as Bronfman points out, the first Hanukkah involved a bitter dispute about religion within the Jewish community. 

Like this year's Hanukkah, the first one happened in a time of economic crisis. At least it was a crisis for Antiochus Ephiphanes, the Seleucid emperor based in Syria. He was waging an unending power struggle against the Ptolemy empire, based in Egypt. As Antiochus struggled to fund his ever-mounting military budget, he had a liquidity problem. He was cash starved. At the same time, he was struggling to keep control of the little province of Judea, because it was right in that border area where the two great empires met.  

So he got a clever idea. He would loot the great temple of Jerusalem. He could take all its treasure to fund his military campaigns, and at the same time show the world that he had a firm grip on this crucial border province. Fortunately for Antiochus, there was a faction of priests in the Jerusalem temple that were willing to help him take its treasure. They had learned to speak Greek and taken on Greek cultural ways. They thought it made good political sense to be an ally rather than an enemy of the ruling power. They probably saw personal advantage in being the emperor's agents, too.

But some of them, at least, surely cared for more than money and power. They were swept up in a larger movement among the Judeans.  It was a time of rapid change, when people first saw a chance to break down the parochial barriers that separated nations and ethnic groups from each other. In Judea, as throughout the Hellenistic world, people who thought of themselves as the most modern and culturally advanced all spoke Greek.  They were excited about the Greek emphasis on rationality sweeping through their world, freeing them from old superstitions. They were learning to value the individual, free to search for his or her own truth. For some Jews, that was a breath of fresh modernizing air, releasing them from what they saw as the stifling culture of their ancestors. 

As modernizing Hellenists searched for truth, in Judea and elsewhere, reason led them to some shared conclusion. They agreed that everyone would be better off if all would lower the barriers dividing one group from another. So they took an interest in each other's cultures and religions. They exchanged ideas and got excited about discovering common values amidst their diversity, fusing all the particular cultures into one universal culture. As they shared their religious views, reason generally led them all to conclude there was only one god.  Although that god could be worshiped in an endless number of ways, each way was equally valid, because ultimately all were worshiping the same god.

Judea, like every other part of the Hellenistic world, had its share of these progressive rationalists, though we have no idea how many.  We get a glimpse of their views and values in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which was probably written by one of their number. The author reflects their inquiring spirit when he tells us that he had set his mind to study everything that is done under the sun. And he came to the conclusion that the particularist views of the ancient Jews no longer made sense. He found it unreasonable that God would reward people who followed his commandments and punish those who didn't.  He found it unreasonable that the one god of the universe would pick one nation above all others has his chosen people. The only reasonable value he could find was to live each day to the fullest, to eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, to enjoy your work and your life with the spouse whom you love.

Progressive thinkers like author of Ecclesiastes took the risk of giving up old values and an old way of life in order to adapt to a changing world and bring new, modern values into their community. Setting out to try to understand everything, following only the dictates of reason, they gave up the security that comes from clinging to old familiar ways. They took the risk of questioning everything, never knowing where that quest might lead.

They took political risks, too. They had learned their new ways from the foreigners who had conquered their province and now ruled it.  So it was easy for them to see it as common sense to ally with the foreign emperor.  When the economic crunch came and the emperor wanted to seize the Temple, they were ready to help him.  Why make such a fuss over a Temple dedicated to keeping alive the ancient superstitions of a tiny little province, which would soon be absorbed into the emerging universal culture? 

Of course such a cosmopolitan attitude inevitably evoked a backlash. There were other Jews who were dead set on maintaining their unique cultural values, traditions, and lifestyle. They resented the modernizers as collaborators with foreigners who oppressed them economically, but perhaps even more oppressed them culturally and spiritually. Judea was locked in a culture war. The economic crisis of Antiochus Epiphanes heightened the tensions and eventually turned them into a military war. 

There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys in this story.  Both sides made some choices that progressives today are likely to likely to judge harshly.  Both sides had values progressives are likely to admire. But both sides were willing to sacrifice and take risks for the values that they believed would sustain and enhance the life of their community. 

In a holiday season so preoccupied with giving gifts, the story of the Maccabees and their foes reminds us that giving ourselves and our values is not only the greatest gift we can give to our community. It's also the riskiest kind of gift.  It always means taking the risk that we might be wrong. Others in our community, and generations to come, may very well judge us and decide that we were wrong.  Yet we can admire both sides for walking the walk: acting on their values in order to enhance the life of their community. They did not let the inevitable moral ambiguities of life paralyze them. 

In fact both sides were so far from seeing the ambiguities, they were so certain they had the truth, that they were willing to kill for it, which makes the story of the first Hanukkah even more morally confusing and disturbing.

We are perhaps more aware than the ancient Judeans that every situation is fraught with ambiguity, that we can and should never feel certain we are in the right.  This makes it less likely that we will impose our values on others. But it also makes us less likely to speak out for, and act upon, the moral values we believe in.  We are more likely to feel paralyzed by moral uncertainty and end up not taking the risk of acting for our community at all. 

In an economic crisis, when the future is so uncertain, we may be even more hesitant to act at all.  Yet such a time of scarcity, with all the strain and suffering that it brings, is precisely the time when our actions on behalf of others are most needed.  Moral paralysis now is more dangerous than ever. 

So the Hanukkah story, in its full complexity, brings us face to face with the great problem:  How can we act on our values yet not force our values on others? The story itself offers no good answer, because all the actors in it tried to force the other side to give in through violence.

The one tradition that does point to an answer seems far away from the story of the Maccabeean war. It's the tradition of non-violence.  Once we see the full, complicated history of Hanukkah, it can easily symbolize for us the basic values of nonviolence:  When we see moral wrongs we should do everything we can to set them right. But we should remember, at every moment, that we are acting on our own view of moral truth, that things look quite different to others, that no one can ever have the whole truth. That's precisely why we should we willing to suffer for the sake of our moral convictions but never inflict suffering on others. 

The menorah lights remind us that the greatest gift we can give is to act firmly and energetically for the sake of the truth as we see it, yet at the same time extend to everyone, even those we oppose most strongly, our compassion, our understanding, our awareness that there are never any easy answers in life, because any situation that really matters is bound to be fraught with moral uncertainty.

We may never be able to give that gift in grand public gestures, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But the little gifts are just as meaningful as the big expensive ones. We can give the most valuable gift every day in little ways, every time we do what we think is right while giving everyone our love and understanding, because we know that we are all caught in the same snares of complexity and ambiguity, all trying our best to find our way in the dim light of the little bit of truth that is given to us.

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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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