Hanukkah Dark or Light


David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, The Hanukkah Story. He finds the story of the Hasmonean ascendancy which Hanukkah celebrates troubling and ambiguous. It’s a surprising position from Brooks, who identifies as a conservative. (That’s with a small c–I don’t know whether he’s also a Conservative Jew) though he also takes some social positions that other conservatives don’t. In any event, it’s a provocative piece.

Rabbi Howard Berman, Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and a good friend of IFF, finds Brooks’ piece narrow and cynical. He considers Hanukkah especially significant to American Jews.  He writes:

David Brooks’ Op-Ed, “The Hanukkah Story,” is disturbing on many levels- beyond the scrooge-like pall it seems determined to cast on the celebration of a beloved holiday. One would hope that Mr. Brook’s academic and journalistic credentials would encompass an understanding of the complexities and nuance of history – which is never the literal, objective, factual account of actual events, but rather the way human experience has been interpreted – reflecting the political or philosophical agenda of both the original chronicle and the evolving national, cultural or religious traditions that emerge from those transforming developments. The Maccabean revolt of 165 BCE reflected the debates and passions of every revolution – the tensions between noble ideals and pragmatic action, as well as the timeless conflict of “traditionalists” and “reformers.” These dynamics have been at  work in the history of Christianity ( especially at the time of the split between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy in the 10th century and later, in the violent Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation); certainly in Islam ( the endless Sunni-Shiite battles); and in the history of America ( especially in the passionate partisan controversies among the Founding Fathers and later, in the Civil War)… no less than they were in Hanukkah’s story of an oppressed people’s revolt against tyranny. One might ask whether Mr. Brooks would have written such an attack on our Nation’s founders for publication on July 4, charging that Independence Day’s meaning is diminished because patriots tarred, feathered and hanged Tory “traitors” who did not share their Revolutionary zeal. Or, if he would attack Christmas, since the subsequent unfolding of history that resulted from its original story was filled with such violence and oppression in the name of the babe in the manger.

The major point is that Hanukkah, like all religious holidays and traditions, has evolved over the centuries. It came to be understood – and celebrated – and loved – by subsequent generations of Jews, far more as an affirmation of faith in the face of oppression, and courage in the struggle for justice and freedom.  It is the later legend of the miracle of the oil that is remembered in popular perception -more than the military victory and the political complexities of the original events – emphasizing the spiritual themes of the festival, and reflecting Hanukkah’s even more ancient roots in winter solstice celebrations of light. In our time, Hanukkah has become a very universalistic affirmation of diversity – embodying in contemporary America a meaning that is arguably very different from the narrow interpretation Brook’s focuses upon. Today, the menorah shines as a symbol of Judaism’s confident engagement in our broader culture, rather than what may have been the Maccabee’s rejection of a tyrannically enforced imposition of alien religious values. I would invite David Brooks to shed his critical cynicism and embrace Hanukkah’s creative power as a vehicle for the celebration of Jewish identity and ideals, that also shares in the broader celebration of this season’s most  universal and inclusive themes.

The eighth night of Hanukkah is tonight! If you have a minute as you’re frying up that last batch of latkes, weigh in on Rabbi Berman’s guest post, Brooks’ original essay and the meaning the holiday. We would love to hear what you have to say.

One thought on “Hanukkah Dark or Light”

  • Interesting. I don’t find Brooks’ interpretation to be particularly jarring or earth-shattering or offensive or even cynical, maybe because my own interpretation of the holiday is basically that it is about a group of strict(er) observers of the Jewish religion of the day versus their more assimilated counterparts. Maybe that’s a little reductionist – ? Okay.

    Of all of Rabbi Berman’s comments, the one I disagree with and am truly baffled by is the notion that Hanukkah can in any way be a celebration of diversity. I mean sure, you can make of it whatever you like, play it out any way you want (I personally prefer to see it as a solstice celebration) and we are far enough removed in time from those events to know from the inside what they truly meant. Maybe because my parents were “intermarried”, and I see myself as the “product” of assimilation, I also view Hanukkah as a fight between the inner circle of “real” Jews and the peripheral assimilated community, and thus tend to take it more personally – as a rejection of my existence.

    Diversity? Really?

    Meanwhile, Hanukkah does raise the question – again – Who is a Jew? What does it mean to identify as a Jew? What does it mean to be part of a minority culture, and to maintain traditions that can get us killed, and to be part of an inter-generational chain of humanity going back for thousands of years, to keep in mind our connection to our ancestors, to preserve a culture, and to know why we are doing it?

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