This year, the Jewish festival of Chanukah falls at the same time as Christmas. Two different religions, that grew up in similar historical-cultural milieus, with festivals around the Winter equinox both observed on the 25th day of their respective Jewish and Gregorian months. This is a perfect time to reflect on the complex interaction that cultures, religious beliefs and communities have with one another. Anyone with essentialist views of their identity or their ideology and theology should stop and look long and hard in the mirror. We must come to realise that who we are is something that is changing and evolving and, more importantly, the way we view the world is something that can change over time, along with the myths that help us appreciate how our world view and our sense of self are interlinked. Chanukah is a perfect example of that.
In the 2nd Century BC (or as I like to think, BCE – Before the Common Era), a group from Modi’in rose up against the Seleucid Empire to reclaim their sovereignty and rededicate their Temple that had been desecrated with idols. What is sometimes overlooked is that this act of military triumph certainly included a suppression of co-religionists who were Hellenised. The narrative as we have inherited it as Jews is clear – this was a triumph of religious freedom and religious identification, it took the form of military victory over an Empire and less successfully, the exclusion of Hellenism as a normative influence.
Then centuries later, the Talmud, the work of literature that is, more than any other, defining of Judaism post-destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, records a different miracle. The miracle of military triumph is downplayed and a new narrative enters the field – a story of a cruse of oil lasting for 8 days. This Festival of Lights as Josephus, the Jewish Historian to Rome, describes Chanukah, thus becomes a reflection of two narratives: on the one hand, the military victory over the Greeks and the influence of Hellenisation and, on the other hand, the miracle of making a small jug of oil last for 8 days.
We do not know why the Talmud downplays the military victory, though scholars have tried to figure it out. Some suggest that in a time when rebellions against Rome had finally been crushed the celebration of a similar, earlier rebellion, would do much to antagonise the Empire. Others see in the shift to God’s wondrous acts as a turn inwards to a spiritual ideal. No longer does the physicality of war carry the same meaning, rather an inward looking spiritual victory makes much more sense.
Chanukah carries twin narratives, which have been popularised by many historical forces. But when asked as a Rabbi if either of them is true my response is, “what do you mean by true?”. The narratives that sustain the identity that we have as Jews is derived from both stories and the way they weave their importance at different times through Jewish history is self-evident. Are they historically true? – Well to a certain extent that does not really interest me since there is a historical core to the stories but the stories we tell ourselves are much more powerful than truth. Every advertising executive, political activist and charismatic religious leader will tell you the same.
But I say something else too. We cannot risk just telling the stories and appreciating their miracles. To be aware of the history of ideas, to be open to how this history influences how we view the world today, and to be open to change and complexity, these are also important principles. Only a literalist would expect Jews to abandon their sense of meaning of Chanukah because there is a historical process in its evolution, aspects of which may be ignored, downplayed or integrated in creative ways. Equally, only someone with a childish sense of essential truth would ignore the way that understanding the forces that create our religious beliefs and narratives can enhance our celebrations.
Today, most Jews are deeply aware of the way that their Judaism is interacting, growing and changing in a sometimes delicate harmonious way with the wider world. But sometimes it is a non-stop highly charged contest in which ideas vie for attention. That is the same when any cultural memes and values interact, no matter their context or religious framework. Through these moments of creativity the spirit is renewed in each generation. It seems to me that if we all viewed our culture, religious beliefs and identities in this non-essentialist, permeable, mutually influencing way, we might be more open, more tolerant and more willing to grow together.