This year the first day of Christmas is also the 25th day of Kislev, which is the first day of Hanukkah (or Chanukah). Accordingly, it is a good time to reflect on, and show the solidarity between, two great Western religious traditions. Even though many Christians and Jews are not observant, and indeed are not necessarily of the same racial or ethnic groups, they share significant values. Christianity is, in a sense, a branch of Judaism. After all, Jesus was born Jewish and never abrogated his religious tradition.
Practically every literate American, including most who are Jewish, knows the story of Christmas. Few know or understand what Hanukkah is all about.
To begin with this festival is not as important to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. It is not a High Holy Day, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover. It is not based on an event found in canonical scripture, but in the Apocrypha, in Titus Flavius Josephus’ the Antiquities of the Jews, and in the Talmud. The story of the lights is in the second book of Maccabees, which is not part of the Hebrew Bible or of Protestant Christian Bible. The first two books of Maccabees, however, are considered canonical by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
The story comes from the second century B.C. when Judea was a buffer between Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. These were entities of the Hellenistic world, which essentially means classical Greek colonies that proliferated throughout the Eastern Mediterranean subsequent to Alexander the Great’s conquests. The Seleucids of Syria under Antiochus IV Epiphanes wrested control of Judea and Jerusalem from Egypt. Antiochus was determined to eliminate the Jewish religious practices there. Among other things, it has been said that he banned circumcision, ordered that all of the Torahs that could be found to be burned, and anyone caught with a Torah would be killed on the spot. The Seleucids also desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, which was among the worst of atrocities that could be committed against the Jewish religion.
Having had enough of Antiochus and the Seleucids’ oppression, Jews revolted under Judah Maccabee in 167 B.C. The rebellion was successful and the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem in 164, traditionally in the month of Kislev, after a victory at the battle of Beth Zur. Because the Temple had been desecrated, they had to conduct a purification ritual which included lighting a menorah and keeping it lit for eight days. According to a tradition, which is not mentioned in the Biblical Books of Maccabees, Judah Maccabee and his followers could not find sufficient oil that had not been desecrated to keep the menorah lit for more than one day. But they lit it anyway, and it burned miraculously for the requisite eight days. This was considered a miracle from heaven and was celebrated thereafter as Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights.
There is some controversy concerning the inspiration for the celebration. Some scholars believe the military victory inspired it, rather than the miracle of the lights. Much of the Bible—in all of its various versions—is allegorical to a large extent. The truth is in the lessons taught, not the literal facts.
While the story may be (lowercase “a”) apocryphal, it is no more so then many of the details of the Christian tradition. Much of the Bible, while it may be ultimate truth, has details filled in where necessary by surmise. For example the birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25, which is near the winter solstice, but according to Scripture, there’s a wide range of dates when it could have occurred. All the New Testament says is that it occurred during a Roman census that was taken at the time Quirinius was the imperial governor of Syria.
I am not Jewish, and have not studied Judaism any detail, so I can’t comment on all the significance that Hanukkah may have for those who are. The point I see is that these festivals commemorate events in the past shed light on the beliefs of Christians and Jews. Jesus was perhaps the most influential individual in the history of the world. However, arguably Moses shares that distinction. Movements which became the foundation of Western Civilization owe their initial founding to those men. Christianity and Judaism have in great measure conquered the world culturally, and at one point nearly politically. The Maccabees’ liberation of Jerusalem and bringing light to purify the temple is symbolic of the continuing quest for freedom and independence of the nation of Israel. Jesus birth heralded freedom from oppression of a different sort.
There is so much more that unites rather than divides Christians and Jews. Where the theology differs, it’s in the accidents, not the essence. This is illustrated by a piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. In his op-ed article “Why this Rabbi Loves Christmas,” Michael Gotlieb, rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica California, opines that both Christians and Jews await the messiah. When he arrives, Rabbi Gotlieb suggests, we’ll ask him if he’s been here before.
Note: the menorah used at Hanukkah has nine lights, not seven. Why? The significance of that is for someone who knows more about it than I do.
For more information see: http://scheinerman.net/judaism/chanukah/texts.html and http://thetorah.com/uncovering-the-truth-about-chanukah/