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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanukkah: The Value of Moderation

And Also: I grew disenchanted with iCarly, which seemed to lose its fun, a season or so ago, but did catch a repeat of iStart a Fan War. Pretty fun episode. Rules of Engagement, unfortunately, has not gotten its groove back.

[In honor of the holiday, which begins today, I reprint these remarks from last year. Meanwhile, the complexity of Muslim adoptions.]

Update: Anne Frank's family celebrated this holiday as well as St. Nicholas Day (also noting a tradition of giving poems to each other on that day), in her diary emphasizing the latter, even though the former clearly is particularly emotional given their situation. OTOH, the latter might be more colorful and nicer to focus upon for the same reason. She also spoke about giving Christmas gifts to their protectors. I'd add, re-reading her last entry alone, Francine Prose was quite right to honor her skills as writer. Quite eloquent for someone fifteen.

Behind the spinning dreidels, holiday presents, and other "kiddy" traditions of Hanukkah lies a story of acculturation, civil war, zealotry, and tyranny. In a 2005 article, reprinted below, James Ponet explores the historical context of Hanukkah and casts the holiday in a new light.

A basic principle of Aristotle can be summarized as moderation in all things. The article cites concerning Hanukkah leads me the same place. As noted in the article, if someone picked up a Bible and looked for the story of Hanukkah, particularly the miracle of stretching a bit of oil for eight days, it might be difficult to find. The celebration started in the times of the Maccabees in the second century before the common era. The two biblical books covering their story is not found in many of the bibles out there because it is among those not accepted in the official canon of Jews or many Christians.

If we actually look at the First Book of Maccabees, the ceremony is less miraculous, no nice story about a tiny bit of oil stretched out provided:
And they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and they offered holocausts with joy, and sacrifices of salvation, and of praise.

The Hanukkah (dedication) would be an annual event:
And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.

The use of the word "holocaust" here underlines the complications in reading the Bible without knowledge of what exactly is being talked about. The term has a different connotation these days; here is is a type of burnt offering. Thus, many Jews prefer "Shoah — a Hebrew word connoting catastrophe, calamity, disaster, and destruction."

But, the story in the actual book also is not solely about the "religious right" of the day rebelling against liberal Jews who started to adopt the ways of the Greeks. True or not, the book tells of a despotic king who ravaged their holy places and denied freedom to honor their God as they saw fit ... it was not that the Jews simply turned away from traditional ways. Those who did not were persecuted by the state. Compare this to the times of Jesus, where there also were Hellenized Jews (Greek cities were referenced in the gospels) AND more traditional religious practice. Or, references in the canonical scriptures of Persian leaders who respected the religious freedom of the Jews and allowed them to rebuild their temple.

Apparently, there could be such a mixture -- not all or nothing, even if people like Jesus rebelled against those who did not follow the traditional path as they understood it. The origins of the holiday either way make it a bit ironic that what many Jews deem a relatively minor celebration is highlighted by some as a sort of balance off of Christmas. A holiday that seems to some as a way to fit Judaism among mainstream culture was originally about the concern Jews adapting too much to the non-Jewish culture of the day. The problems with the fit is addressed here, in what else, a holiday display lawsuit.

The "miracle of Hanukkah" appears to be a later addition, much like many of our Christmas traditions cannot be found as such in the Bible. For instance, the very timing -- late December -- is not biblical, but more a reflection of pagan practice of celebrations that were later adapted by Christians. It's overall meaning, as with Christmas, can be many different things. A dedication to God as well as a reminder of the threat of persecution -- not necessary the same thing as religious diversity or even being ruled by non-Jews -- is one way. It also can be honored (as was the case by Anne Frank's family) along with St. Nicholas Day or Christmas, those celebrated as a sort of secular holiday by some Jews as well.

Perhaps, the eight days of the festival can be used to examine the various aspects of this matter.