Although the true history of Hanukkah recounts a bloody civil war between Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee with their fellow Jews enamored of Greek culture, we prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil. Here is that idealized version.
A long time ago, approximately 2,200 years before our generation, the Syrian-Greeks ruled much of the world and in particular the land of Israel. Their king, Antiochus, insisted that all pray and offer sacrifices as he did. He outlawed Jewish practice and desecrated the holy Temple. But our heroes, the Maccabees, rebelled against his rule. After nearly three years of battle, the Maccabees prevailed. They recaptured the Temple.
When the Jews entered the Temple, they were horrified to discover that their holiest of shrines had been transformed and remade to suit pagan worship. They declared a dedication (the meaning of hanukkah) ceremony. Soon they discovered that there was only enough holy oil to last for one of the eight day long ceremony. Still they lit the menorah that adorned the sanctuary. And lo and behold, a great miracle happened there. The oil lasted not for the expected single day but for all eight days.
The rabbis therefore decreed that we should light Hanukkah candles on each of this holiday’s nights, beginning on the first evening, on the twenty fifth of Kislev. (The customs of spinning dreidels and eating foods fried in oil came much later.) The rabbis pronounced: “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If a person lives upstairs, he places it at the window most adjacent to the public domain.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Contrary to the contemporary ethic of privacy where what we do in our own homes is not to be publicized to the outside world, the rabbis instruct us that we must display the menorah so that others may see it. Why? So that the world might also learn about the miracle of Hanukkah. So that others might see that God performs wonders.
Are not our Jewish identities meant to be hidden? No, the rabbis declare. They are intended to be proclaimed to the world. Even though everyone else appears to be celebrating other holidays at this time of year, we reaffirm that we have our own unique faith, and that we are proud to publicize it. The rabbis counsel that we should proudly proclaim our Jewish faith—at least during the eight days of Hanukkah. That is the message of the Maccabees. That is the import of their revolt against those who wished to suppress Jewish practice.
But what happens if Jews live in a time and place when placing the menorah in their windows could be dangerous? The rabbis decree: “And in a time of danger he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.” What should we do now? Where should we place the menorah today? Is our own era a time of danger?
Recently I met with a friend who was visiting from Israel. He told me that he now covers his kippah with a baseball hat when going out to restaurants in New York. He is afraid. I heard as well of young couples who second guess their decision to send their children to a Jewish nursery school for fear that it could be a target of antisemitic attacks. After years of increasing attacks, after the most recent Jersey City murders and the assault at Indiana University to name a few, fear has come to dominate our discussions of Jewish identity. Where is it safe to declare our Jewishness?
Should we hide our identity? Can the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, help us to figure out what constitutes a real danger? Later authorities suggest that the rabbis understood danger to mean when Jewish practice is outlawed, such as during the Maccabean revolt. Only then should we move our menorahs to “safer ground.” But who gets to decide what dangerous means? Our rabbis? Our tradition?
Instead it is each of us. Danger is of course a matter of perception. It is in truth more about feelings than threats. If a person is afraid, then the threat is real.
I have been thinking that perhaps my frequent trips to Israel have provided me with some helpful measures of strength and resolve. The modern era grants us something that our ancient rabbis could never have imagined: a sovereign Jewish state, a state that can fight back against our enemies. We look to a state that can fortify us and offer us even greater courage in the face of this growing tide of antisemitic hate.
This is why I found it so surprising that it was my Israeli friend who now expresses fear. Perhaps it is even more a matter of where one feels at home. If we feel at home we are less likely to feel afraid.
Today we are called once again to fight back against antisemitism. Our day demands that we never allow this hate even the space to breathe. We must stand up. We must be forever proud. But we must also be prudent. The rabbis’ caution is well taken.
The most important point of course is that regardless of where we decide to place the menorah, regardless of whether or not we are afraid, we light the candles. Find that place. Find the place where you are comfortable proudly declaring your Jewish faith. And there light the menorah. This year most especially, this holiday of Hanukkah demands no less.