(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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After the death of Alexander the Great in 312 BCE, his vast empire was split up. The largest portion, one which extended from Greece to India, was called the Seleucid Empire. That Empire included modern Israel.
The Seleucid culture was primarily greek with a worship of greek gods and goddesses, a focus on the arts, nature, sensuality, and the idealization of the human body. Its culture and its values clashed with the Jewish culture of Palestine which worshipped only one god, followed a strict code of religious behavior, and was moralistic.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes became Emperor of the Seleucid empire. Antiochus as a leader was arrogant, drunk with power, and highly irrational. People of the time secretly referred to him as Antiochus Epimanes – instead of Epiphanes – as a play on words. Epimanes means in Greek, “the crazy one.”
Unlike previous rulers of the Empire, Antiochus took it as a personal insult that Jews did not worship him, and statues of him, as a god. That, of course, was something Judaism forbids since there is ostensibly only one god – Yahweh. Antiochus was also angry when Jews, following their religious codes of conduct, protested against Greek cultural practices to exalt sensuality and the human body.
In response, Antiochus had huge statues of himself and Zeus placed inside the Jewish Temple – the most sacred place in Judaism where it’s believed Yahweh’s spirit dwells. To add further insult, Antiochus ordered that pigs be slaughtered inside the Temple making it unholy since Jews avoid any contact with swine. He also convened a huge olympic style athletic competition in Jerusalem which followed the Greek practice of competition while naked.
All of this was intolerable for the Jewish people. Their High Priest tried to retake control of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. Antiochus, in response, brought his Army to the city and began a massive slaughter of its citizens – what Jewish people still call the Abomination of Desolation – a term they have also applied to the Holocaust.
Judas Maccabeus, a young Jewish man, organized a small army to fight Antiochus. Amazingly, after only a year of conflict, Judas and his army defeated Antiochus’ army and killed the Emperor. And it is at this point that the traditional Hanukkah story begins.
Joyous Jews rushed to their Temple to immediately restore its holiness after years of being defiled. When they tried to relight its large menorah candelabra, they discovered there was only enough holy oil to keep it lit for a day – not nearly long enough to make and consecrate more. But they lit it anyway and were amazed when it stayed lit for eight days – almost by a miracle. This allowed them time to make more holy oil to keep it perpetually lit. Every year afterwards, on the 25th day of the Hebrew calendar month of kislev, which is set according to moon phases, Jews celebrate their holiday of lights – also called Hanukkah.
I’ve tried this month to find inspiration from December holidays around the world. We’ve learned about St. Lucia day in Sweden which emphasizes the importance of being light in a world of dark nastiness. We’ve also examined the Dongzhi Festival of China which celebrates the Winter Solstice and ideals of a harmonious, peaceful, and balanced Yin and Yang way of thinking.
For today’s look at Hanukkah, which begins this evening at sunset, I want to examine how it is specifically celebrated in Israel and what might inspire us from that. Here in the U.S., American Jews celebrate the holiday differently than do Israeli Jews.
Significantly, Israelis repeatedly emphasize that Hanukkah is not a Jewish answer to Christmas – much like it can often seem that way in America. In Israel, Hanukkah is honored, but it is NOT a major holiday. Indeed, it took centuries for most Rabbis to even acknowledge the holiday since its story, while historical, is not included in the Jewish Scriptures – but it is surprisingly included in the Christian Bible.
A debate about Hanukkah in Israel is whether or not it is a religious holiday honoring a miracle of light, or a secular holiday remembering a victory over oppression. Even more, there has been a strong pushback in Israel against the Americanization and commercialization of the holiday.
In the early 20th century, American rabbis were concerned that Christmas was becoming culturally overwhelming for Jews. It caused them, and particularly their children, to feel torn between joining in the Christmas sprit, or being completely left out of parties, decorations, and gift giving. The Christmas season was the one time a year when American Jews felt like outsiders in their own country. And so American rabbis began promoting Hanukkah as an alternative December holiday for Jews. They encouraged elaborate celebrations of the holiday by giving gifts on each night of Hanukkah, and celebrating each of the 8 evenings with festive parties and meals.
In Israel, however, Hanukkah celebrations are far more subdued. It’s a holiday and people leave work early on each of the eight nights, but they do so not to party, but to go home and be with family. Gift giving is a very minor practice and usually only one gift per person, if that, is received for the entire eight days. One practice by some parents is to give children gelt – a yiddish word for money. The practice began in the Middle Ages and children are encouraged to give a portion of what they receive to charity. More common is to give youth gold foil chocolate coins instead of money. Getting chocolate coins or money on Hanukkah represent receiving God’s miraculous love.
The emphasis for Israelis Jews is on celebrating light and goodness with one’s family or in small neighborhood groups. Many blocks of houses or apartment buildings have communal menorahs which a few households gather around and light each night together.
For Hanukkah meals, foods cooked in oil are eaten – to remember the miracle of oil. Jelly or custard filled doughnuts are the most popular food. Latkes, or fried potato pancakes, are also eaten.
Almost 80% of Israeli Jews – whether they are secular or religious – celebrate all eight days of Hanukah – indicating that Israelis take seriously the symbolic candle lighting ritual as one for reinforcing their beliefs.
Most significantly to me, Israeli Jews purposefully put their menorah candles in a front window or, more commonly, in a glass box placed outside next to their house or apartment building. Such a glass Hanukkah candle box is shown on the cover of your programs. The desire is to publicly proclaim to the world that the family within is proudly Jewish, and that they believe in ideals of right behavior, defiance in the face of oppression, and honoring the goodness of universal love.
For me, that’s an ethic I want to better practice in my life. How do I witness to the world values and beliefs I hold dear?
In ancient Rome, when Christians were persecuted and often killed for their faith, a common question was asked by believers to one another: “If you are arrested, is there enough proof in your life, and how you live, to convict you for being Christian?” The question was a challenge: just how strong and how committed are you to your beliefs?
If someone answered “yes, there is enough evidence to convict me,” it was sign they were courageous and committed despite the terrible risk. In Nazi Germany and areas they conquered, soldiers used synagogue records of membership, bar mitzvahs, and weddings, as well as testimony from neighbors, to determine who was Jewish. In other words, Jews who had openly practiced their beliefs were the most likely to be arrested, sent to concentration camps, and killed.
It’s that kind of courage many of us have never had to summon – to risk one’s life for one’s beliefs.
In Israel today, where terrorist or rocket attacks from enemies are a constant threat, Jewish identity is in many ways a bold expression of their courage. It’s for that reason that Israeli Jews literally let their light shine at Hanukkah as a way to express their commitment, and their trust, in good defeating hate.
By lighting their menorah lights and displaying them so publicly, Israeli Jews proudly proclaim their heritage, history, identity, and dedication to timeless values. Despite suffering countless episodes of oppression throughout history, and enduring continual threats today, Israeli Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a way to remember and publicly state their ideals – that decency, modesty, charity, and faith are the right things to practice…….and that doing good is far better than just speaking good. By publicly lighting Hanukkah candles, Israeli Jews, and many others, “walk their talk.”
For me, for all of us, that’s something that is both inspiring and challenging. What principles do we stand for not just in here where it seems safe, but in the wider world where it is less safe? Do we, in some public or symbolic way, proclaim our beliefs from our homes? Does the way we treat others bear witness to our Unitarian Universalist ideal of showing dignity and worth to everyone – not just to those we like, but to those we don’t know or even dislike? In other words, how am I courageously walking my talk? How do I put into action what I say I believe?
I imagine in many respects all of us try to behave consistent with what we believe. We’re not perfect, just like few people are – but we belong to this UU church, and we share our time and money with each other and with charity and advocacy organizations, all in order to actually do what our hearts and minds believe. But our challenge is to nevertheless continually better ourselves such that with each succeeding year, we increasingly live up to ideals of being kind, committed, accepting, generous, and peaceful.
What I want to do is publicly display my symbolic lights of belief in how I act in daily life. If I believe in justice, if I believe in diversity, if I believe in always speaking and acting with compassion and empathy, then what am I doing to tangibly prove they are real? Do all of my life actions bear witness to my heart – or am I perhaps the worst of sinners – a hypocrite? That’s a challenging question for me and, forgive me, for each of you too.
I had the privilege to spend two weeks in Israel when I was in Seminary. One of our church members recently returned from a trip there. And so we recently shared our impressions of Israel – as an amazing nation of beautiful contrasts, of vibrant and happy people, and most of all, for me, is the courage and faith of its citizens in the midst of daily threats.
We face challenges in this nation too, but we don’t face the kind of existential threats Israelis do. Canada and Mexico do not daily threaten to kill us all. Many of Israel’s neighbors, who are only a hundred miles or less from their major cities, do that regularly. That’s a threat much like the ancient Jews faced with Antiochus Epiphanes, and one that six million Jews experienced during the Holocaust. It’s those kinds of dire challenges that have always defined the Israeli spirit – to be brave, to fight against oppression, and importantly to live true to their values.
In my comfortable life, in my dealing with far more modest difficulties, how can I be a similar light to family, community, and the world? Let me, let us, be true to our beliefs and let us shine our small lights to help make a difference for good. (pause)
One of the most haunting and beautiful tunes I know is the theme piece from the movie Schindler’s List. It evokes the tragedy that has often been Jewish life, but it also has a spirit of persistence to it. I asked Michael if he would play the piece for us and, while he does so now, I hope we each ponder our own commitments to ideals we cherish. What do I stand for? What do I tangibly do to practice my beliefs? And, more so, what do I do to build peace, goodness, and kindness in a world with so much hate and anger? Let us meditate, reflect, and enjoy Michael and Spencer’s beautiful music.