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Rabbi Ben Hecht

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How Chanukah Became an American Myth

Posted: 12/07/2012 6:34 pm

As a Rabbi, I have always found it somewhat curious the way the general North American public looks upon the festival of Chanukah. While actually a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, it is given much significance in Western society. In the eyes of many, including many Jews, it is ranked right up there with the High Holidays and Passover as one of three perceived major festivals of Judaism.

Chanukah's proximity to Christmas is an obvious reason for this. In a time when the world around is celebrating, it is nice to join in with your own holiday. As Adam Sandler explains it in the Chanukah song:
"There's a lot of Christmas songs out there and uhh... Not too many Chanukah songs. So uhh...
I wrote a song for all those nice little Jewish kids who don't get to hear any Chanukah songs."
(Adam Sandler performing the Chanukah Song on YouTube.)

In the same way, we could say that with a whole lot of partying and ritual celebration going around at Christmas time, North America had to make Chanukah into some type of similar party too.

But what I also find fascinating is the way that North America had to simultaneously transform Chanukah into a festivity that relates to the North American consciousness. If people are going to be celebrating this holiday then it better have a meaning with which these individuals can connect.

So, Chanukah became this celebration of religious freedom. The basic storyline that is presented is, thus, that the Jews were being subjected to religious persecution by the Greek Hellenists and so the Jewish Maccabees rebelled against this oppression in a fight for religious freedom. But was it really religious freedom for which the Maccabees were fighting? The truth is -- not exactly. What they were specifically fighting for was the right to practice their religion; actually, for the establishment of a society where their belief would not only be a permitted one but the dominant one.

I do not mislead myself into thinking that tolerance was the battle cry of the Maccabees. They were not fighting for the American value of freedom of religion; Chanukah is not a celebration of the victory of such a battle. That is an American myth. The holiday actually marks a war between two theological and/or philosophical entities, each wishing to be victorious and to establish their system as the singular base of their shared society.

What Judaism celebrates with the holiday of Chanukah is that the Jewish side won, not the American myth of a victory for the cause of generic religious freedom. It would be difficult, though, for individuals who actually ascribe, to a large extent, to a Hellenist vision of life to celebrate a holiday which marks the defeat of that view. So a new view of Chanukah was created. (This is not to say that the concept of tolerance plays no role in Chanukah. While a discussion of the place of the value of freedom of religion within Judaism is beyond the parameters of this posting, I will say, it does exist within Judaism although in somewhat of a different form than as found in American society. The point is that there is still a vast difference between a battle for freedom of religion and a battle for the dominance of a specific religious perspective albeit that it may include some principles of tolerance. The mythology is that Chanukah marks the former while the reality is that it actually marks the latter.)

This American mythology, however, has taken an even more radical turn in its influence on our view of the Arab Spring. People rebelled against oppression but such rebellion in itself does not mean they were necessarily fighting for American-style freedom. While there may have been people within these revolutions who did undertake such a fight, in so many ways, what we actually also saw was a battle between two entities, each one wishing to be not just dominant but dominating; each one wishing to be not only the basis of their society but the sole voice within their countries.

This would seem to be clear from the recent news reports from Egypt which indicate a concern that the ultimate victors did not really fight for universal freedom and human rights against the Mubarak regime. Rather, they fought for the ascendancy of their own system, with its own possibilities of oppression, in place of the domination of the Mubarak regime with its specific system of oppression. Yet, for so many, the noted American myth prevents one from seeing this.

In a certain way, the development of such an American mythology reflects a positive attribute within the population. Imagine one kid, a bully, picking on another, an underdog. Something happens and the underdog then emerges victorious. We, clearly, would be ecstatic. Our further expectation is that this underdog will also have learned from his/her experience and now, in a position of power, not follow the bullying example of the one who picked on him/her.

It is this hope that is the genesis of such American myths -- and the fact that this is for what we wish indeed does reflect positively on us. While we may want this to be true, however, this is not always the case. Sadly, in many such situations, the previous underdog just becomes a new bully to others. The further tragedy is that our hope then prevents us from seeing this reality. An underdog can become a new bully; in fact, the very desire of some oppressed individuals during their years of oppression is not simply to not be oppressed but to actually become the one oppressing. Their victory then gives them the opportunity to meet this vision and we should be concerned about this.

Clearly, this is not always the case. There are those who actually are fighting for generic freedom as did the combatants of the American Revolution. There are also those who, while fighting for their own specific cause, also recognize the rights of others as, I believe, was the case with the Maccabees of the Chanukah story. Of course, we can expect the victorious underdog to take steps to ensure that the previous bully will never again assume a position of strength and/or dominance. We must still, however, make sure that any such police action is simply this and nothing more.

The other possibility, however, also does exist and our American mythology should not prevent us from seeing this. Not every person in fighting for a cause is also fighting for absolute freedom. The desired victory is, often, not just the removal of oppression but the establishment of the oppressive domination of their cause. The lesson they learned from all their years of being oppressed is not the evil of oppression but the efficacy of being the one in charge, the one actually enforcing the oppression...and so they become new oppressors.

Beyond any myths, this is something that must also be recognized. A fight for singular freedom -- the right for me to behave as I wish - does not necessarily include a commitment to true freedom -- the right of all to behave as they wish. To ignore this truth will only lead to new oppression.

 

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