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Reinventing Hanukkah: In America, a Holiday of Religious Freedom

Series exploring how different groups reinterpreted Hanukkah in the 20th century
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

In the 21st century, Hanukkah is celebrated widely and enthusiastically by more Jews than any other holiday than Passover. Both holidays are performed at least one night a year by almost 90 percent of American Jews, more than observed Hanukkah in the 1930s. The sociological reason is surely related the competition with a commercialized, publicly observed Christmas and to the holiday season.

Material for this article and the others in this series is adapted from Noam Zion’s book, A Different Light, The Hanukkah Book of Celebration.

Yet Jews could also have adopted a secularized Christmas, as many German Jews did in the 19th century and early 20th century. If social pressure and a desire to be like everyone else and make sure out children are not left out were the only reason, then one need not enhance a separate Jewish holiday that highlights the very difference that makes many American Jews uncomfortable. There was also counterpressure to assert one’s ethnic and religious identity against the majority. Thus whatever the social reasons for Hanukkah, Jewish educators developed an ideological rationale which became very popular.

Reform and Conservative Jews led the way in this Americanization of Hanukkah not only by inventing the custom of giving eight gifts, one per night, and using colored candles, unknown beyond its shores, but also reshaped the message of the menorah’s light to fit the American Jewish predicament.

The Reform reinvention is quite striking. There are elements in Hanukkah that could be difficult for classical Reform Jews to adopt. For the Maccabees, Hanukkah is celebrated as the “rededication of the altar” (hence its name “Hanukkah”) desecrated by the Greek Syrians who sacrificed pigs on that altar to Zeus, but Reform Jews do not pray to return to sacrifices and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and they name every local synagogue a Temple. In the days of the Maccabees martyrs died rather than eat impure food, but most Reform Jews do not preach keeping kosher.

The Maccabees fought to achieve political independence for a separate Jewish nation in the Jewish homeland by trying to expel Western culture (Hellenism) by acts of military heroism. But classical Reform Judaism was non-nationalist, anti-Zionist, pacifist in orientation and committed to integration within Western civilization in their own lands to which they owed their exclusive national allegiance. Mattathias killed a Jew who publically worshipped Zeus when Antiochus’ men came to enlist supporters, and Judah the Maccabee forcibly circumcised Jewish babies when their parents wanted to be more Hellenized or were simply afraid of reprisals by the Greek Syrians.

In contrast, freedom of conscience, faith in God, loyalty to the state, and an ethics of peace and reason have been central Reform values.

Thus it should not be surprising that Isaac M. Wise, who introduced Reform Judaism in the United States and founded its major institutions, suggested in 1865 the elimination of the Hanukkah lights. However, six years later the Augsburg Synod, with delegates mostly from German Reform congregations, introduced a resolution urging the appropriate commemoration of Hanukkah, which had been neglected in many Reform Jewish congregations and schools. The rationale for this resolution was to counteract the celebration of Christmas by many Jewish families “in direct opposition to Jewish consciousness.” One hundred and fifty years later American Jews continue to give great significance to Hanukkah as a counterweight to Christmas.

However they have also made Hanukkah a major symbol of America Jewish values. Let me cite a 1971 Reform curriculum for children written by Harry Gersh:

Freedom to Serve God: So this war was the first for the right of a people within a country to believe as they wish – so long as they followed the king’s law in worldly matters. For thousands of years, Jews have lived under kings, princes, dukes, caliphs, governors, presidents. And they have always been loyal to these rulers – so long as they were permitted to practice their own religion. This idea of religious freedom is followed in all free nations today. It was first given to the world by the Jews.” – When a Jew Celebrates by Harry Gersh with Eugene Borowitz and Hyman Chanover, Behrman House 1971

The battle of the Maccabees against the religious and political coercion of Antiochus was a battle for collective religious, hence national political freedom, but not for individual freedom of conscience as such. But the Reform interpretation is certainly as valid as any rabbinic reading of the past, and it makes Hanukkah central to the American Jewish concern for maintaining its difference within a democratic land.

Reform Jews have become, at least since the Holocaust, strong supporters of Zionism. And so nowadays, Hanukkah can also represent for them, as it does for Israelis, a war of independence and a model for the virtue of military courage in a just war. Still, some liberal Reform Jews, especially during the protests against the War in Vietnam, have felt ambivalent about militant nationalism. In the same 1971 curriculum cited above it says:

Today some people try to use Hanukkah to show that the Jews were a warrior people. They were not. Most Jews in all ages thought war was stupid. … Jews never take up the sword willingly. No one can take joy in the death of another human being. But sometimes we have no choice. We must stop and fight those who would deny us the freedom to be Jews. If we do not, we are, in effect, agreeing to become slaves.

That’s why Mattathias, the priest of Modiin, is the real hero of Hanukkah. He had the courage to stand up to the Syrians. Mattathias did not want war. When many people shouted for war, Mattathias ran away from Jerusalem hoping to avoid war. But when he found that meant he would have to give up his Judaism he knew what he had to do. If war and death were the price the Jews had to pay for the right to be Jews, then war and death it would be.

Two thousand years before Abraham Lincoln said that a nation cannot endure half slave and half free, Mattathias, the priest of Modiin, sent his five sons into war against the Syrians because he knew that the Jews could not exist half slave and half free….

Some people try to change the meaning of Hanukkah, so that it celebrates a war for independence. It wasn’t. The Jews would rather have had their own government and king, but they did not go to war over politics.

Religious coercion is identified with slavery in such a way that to be a true Reform Jew is to be a true American, at least a liberal one like Abraham Lincoln. In between the lines of this children’s story there is a polemic against other contemporary Jews who use Hanukkah to promote national independence, even by means of war.

Many Reform and Conservative Jews will dissent from the particular curriculum by Harry Gersh. But I think it is still true to say that liberal American Jews hold that Hanukkah candles represent a value that they are proud to propagate in the public sphere: the banner of religious freedom for every individual. This is the central value for American liberal Jews and for liberal Americans, and that bridges the tension between Jewish and American identity, so the Jews need not feel so uncomfortable with being different. This rationale is as important as the eight presents.

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