12/23/2011 09:22 EST | Updated 02/22/2012 05:12 EST

Hanukkah: Some Miracle

Who doesn't love Hanukkah? Presents and fried potatoes, all conveniently timed to mitigate for Jewish children the pain that Santa does not love them.

And yet have you considered what a weird holiday it is?

Eight days of festivities because ancient Jews discovered a cruse of unusually long-lasting oil? ITAL That's END ITAL supposed to rank as a miracle? Why not take a long weekend in August because the prophet Isaiah saved 15% on his car insurance?

Of all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah may be the one with the most contemporary resonance. It tells a story of conflict over assimilation - of the struggle for Jewish national independence - and of the challenges faced by a Jewish state surrounded by enemies and supported by the world's greatest military power. But to rediscover that highly relevant message, you have to scrape away a lot of potato-flavored schmaltz. Christmas is a holiday whose meaning has been super-imposed over the centuries, with Nordic ritual (Yule logs, Druidic evergreen trees) overlaid upon the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Hanukkah by contrast is a holiday whose meaning has been ripped away, as generations of rabbis sought to contain and suppress a story too upsetting and dangerous to fit conveniently into later Jewish tradition and practice.

In the 170s before Christ, the little territory of what is now Israel was subject to a powerful neighbor, an empire stretching from what is now Syria deep toward what is now Afghanistan. This empire was ruled by the descendants of one of the generals of Alexander the Great. In an effort to integrate their sprawling domain, these rulers demanded that the Jews practice some elements of Greek cult in their Temple worship.

These demands triggered internecine conflict among the Jews. Some thought it wise to obey. Some few even thought the Jews had something to learn from their Greek-speaking neighbors. Others militantly rejected Greek customs and foreign rule. Disagreement led to assassination, repression, civil war, and ultimately outright rebellion. The rebels prevailed. The family that led the rebellion were nick-named the Maccabees, and Hanukkah was the Fourth of July of the kingdom they founded.

But when it came time, 500 years later, to codify Jewish ritual and practice, the Fourth of July aspect of Hanukkah got short shrift. From the perspective of the authors of the Talmud, the Maccabees were an inconvenient truth for three major reasons:

1) The Maccabees consolidated their power by assuming not only the kingship but also the high priesthood. The rabbis strongly objected to this assertion of royal power - especially since the later members of the dynasty were notorious as anything but pious.

2) The Maccabee rebellion of the 160s had inspired later Jewish insurrections against the Romans that ended in horrible disaster. From this trauma, the rabbis derived a doctrine of submission to established authority - and a deep mistrust of the Maccabee example.

3) Most awkward of all, it was to these same brutal Romans that the Maccabees owed their ultimate success. Yes, they won some battles against their Greek-speaking overlords. But how was tiny Judaea to win a war against an empire? The answer: make an alliance with a stronger empire--Rome. The new Jewish kingdom gained a Roman security guarantee. The 8th chapter of the First Book of Maccabees is a long encomium to Roman strength and trustworthiness. The Jewish-Roman relationship badly soured in the first Christian century, and by the time Jewish law was codified, the (now-Christian) Romans were regarded as the ultimate oppressors and persecutors of the Jewish people.

Hence the downplaying of Hanukkah the holiday - and the reorientation of the story to the crummy miracle of the lamp.

In our time, there exists again an independent Jewish state, again backed by a guarantee from the mightiest military power of the age. Again Jews are divided between those who assimilate to majority culture and those who reject it. The Hanukkah holiday touches every central question of modern Jewish existence. It deserves a fuller telling - and a better celebration than a fried potato pancake.

This originally appeared in The Week.