Light and Might of Chanukah

14 December 2020
By: Aaron Portman

Today, more than ever, we need a holiday like Chanukah. As the days get shorter and the nights grow longer, as the winter cold turns us towards the hearth, as the pain of the plague continues to ravage communities worldwide, the world yearns for light to push out the darkness. The Festival of Lights seems to arrive when it is needed most, when the world could use a little brightening. What better way to welcome the darkest winter of our generation than with a celebration of candles, songs, and gift-giving.

Yet, it is worthwhile to ask what we are truly celebrating this time of year. Here in the United States, Chanukah has come to be associated with the other festival of lights in December. Some historians note that American Jewish community leaders in the early 20th century explicitly encouraged parents to give their children Chanukah presents to compete with the Christmas gift-giving culture of their friends and neighbors. So what is Chanukah then, and what lessons can we draw from its multiple narratives?

For many, Chanukah is primarily about the miracle of the oil. We know the story well. There was only enough pure oil to light the Menorah in the Temple for one day, but miraculously it lasted for eight. In the Talmud narrative, Chanukah is about the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the Temple. Righteousness beats out Greek hedonism. Light overcomes darkness. In the Maccabees’ righteous fervor I am reminded of contemporary movements for religious freedom and pluralism in Israel: activists and NIF grantees that are fighting for all forms of religious practice to be recognized and respected. The Greeks believed their cultural markers–polytheism, materialism, Hellenism–were superior, suppressing all variations of religious practice. The light of the menorah reminds us that diversity of perspective and practice are crucial for a healthy society.

While the miracle of the oil is central to our contemporary observance of Chanukah–whether through the candles we light or the latkes we eat–combatting oppressive power, tyranny, and corruption seems to be a core part of the Chanukah story as well. The non-canonical books of Maccabees I & II, the primary source for the Chanukah story, do not mention a miracle of oil. In fact, prior to the Talmud, there is no reference to a miracle at all. The Al HaNisim prayer, traditionally added during the eight days of Chanukah, cites a military victory as the main reason for our celebration.

How do we reconcile these seemingly paradoxical elements of Chanukah, the soft light and the harsh might? I believe we should look no further than to the New Israel Fund, which fights for the rights of all those who reside in Israel. Religious freedom is a rallying cry of Chanukah, symbolized by the miraculous light of the menorah. In NIF’s promotion of religious pluralism, I am reminded of the rededication of the Temple and the light of spiritual authenticity. In the many acts of civil defiance against corruption in Israel, I am reminded of the Maccabean warriors fighting for their own rights. I find a great deal of hope in the work of activists and NIF grantees that are fighting for the civil rights of all those who call Israel home and against all forms of corruption. Both light and might are manifest in the justice work currently taking place in the Holy Land, the same setting as the Chanukah story.

Whether Chanukah serves as a call to protest or as a means to nestle comfortably at home with those we love, may this season bring light and safety, and may the future be brighter for all of us.

Aaron Portman

Aaron Portman is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a 2020-2021 NIF Froman Fellow. He is committed to elevating the humanity inherent in all people through pastoral presence, care, and conversation. He has worked as an educator and mentor for campers and college-age staff as the head of Camp Stone, for youngsters as a youth director at the Hebrew Institute of White Plains, and for children of Christian-Jewish homes as an educator with the Interfaith Community. Aaron participated in Avodah, where he worked at Footsteps, a New York-based non-profit which serves individuals who are transitioning out of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.