osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

More on Chanukah (then I really got to get to work)

I think one of the things that confuses people is the interplay between what we would think of as religious and secular holidays in Judaism.

Judaism, like Islam and a number of other religions, really does not distinguish between "religious" and "secular." Halacha, Jewish law, provides a very specific code to live by that covers all aspects of secular law and ritual practice. A read through of the Talmud or various compilations of halacha will find much space devoted to such routine matters as resolution of property complaints, methods for resolving contract disputes, business conduct, and a host of economic regulations.

This means that certain things that would normally be considered secular observances acquire religious significance, because they all blend together. For example, the five fast days that are not the Day of Atonement are days of national mourning similar in basic concept to something like Veterans Day or Memorial Day (albeit without the white sales). They are designed to commemorate certain historic events in the course of the nation. Since the overall religious philosophy views history as the relationship between God and his Chosen People, these historic events acquire a religious overtone. The Destruction of the Temple commemorated on the 9th of Av was a national tragedy. But since it occurred on account of our sins, it acquires a religious significance as a reminder of God's role in controlling the world and that we will remain in exile until such time as we shape up and stop sinning.

Channukah is similar, in that it is basically a holiday like July 4 celebrating a particular historic event because of its significance. The Jews defeated the evil Hellenes and drove the foreign army out of our land, leading to the reestablishment of a native dynasty. Boo-yah! And, since everything comes from God, it follows that the celebration of this historic victory is also a reminder of Divine favor when we do what the Lord wants us to do by casting out evil foreign idolatry and stuff. Hooray! This was particularly important for historic/political reasons during the time of the Hasmonean dynasty and during the political struggle between the Pahrisees and the Saducees. Since the Hasmonean dynasty was Saducean, and centered on the Temple cult in Jerusalem, the emphasis on the military victory (and the aspect of Divine favor thus derived) was played up during this period. The Pharisees, who argued that the Hasmoneans were usurpers of the true Davidic line and who maintained that the code of practical law subject to Rabbinic interpretation was paramount to the Temple-centered and literalist interpretation of the Saducees, emphasized the miraculous element and the individual candle-lighting over the central lighting of the Menorah in the Temple.

Please note, however, that these are questions of emphasis. The Pharisees did not deny the military victory or even that Chanukah was primarily about the war of independence. It was not until the destruction of the Temple and the need to have symbols that replaced the Temple symbols that Chanukah became more about the miracle of the oil and the lights. It also underwent a subtle shift away from being a war of revolution (not so popular with the Romans, who suppressed the Bar Kochba Revolt with ferocity and were not going to put up with anything that even vaguely smelled like resistance at this point) (this is also when Lag B'Omer becomes about Rabbi Akiva's students no longer dying "of a plague" rather than commemorating their deaths as martyrs at the hands of the Romans).

So instead of trying to compare Chanukah to Xmass, I recommend thinking of it as a sort of July 4. Imagine an alternate universe out of the 1950s where the "big war" wipes out the U.S. and the Soviet Union and surviving Americans try to retain various pieces of their culture. So they keep things like July 4 and the flag and the reading of the Declaration of the Independence, but as the actual events that inspired these recede, they become instead symbols relevant to the post-apocalyptic world and reminders of the previous "better" world before "the big war." Eventually, primitive savages gather to say the E Plebnista to a shredded American Flag, and the text of the Constitution beginning "We the people" becomes "holy words" only spoken by chiefs or sons of chiefs . . . .

What do you mean it's been done before?

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded