Gellman: Chanukah's Real Meaning

Chanukah is unquestionably the worst marketing disaster in the history of Judaism. Against a forest of magical twinkling Christmas trees, we Jews counter with a measly nine-branched candlestick. Against Handel's "Messiah," and "White Christmas" (thanks a lot, Irving Berlin!) we offer up for your listening pleasure the goofy song "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel": "I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay." Against Santa we put up … nobody! Against the gathering to celebrate the birth in a manger of the little baby Jesus, we Jews gather to celebrate the military victory of a bunch of Jewish ayatollahs in the second-century B.C.E. whose main legacy was to begin the utterly corrupt dynasty of Hasmonean priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In fact, until the Christmas tsunami hit us, Chanukah was so detested by Judaism that the books of I and II Maccabees, which describe the holiday (minus the miracle of the oil!), were not even included in the final codex of the Hebrew Bible. If it were not for the embrace of the Apocrypha by Christians, the history of Chanukah might mercifully have been lost. The rabbis so hated the message of Chanukah that on the Sabbath closest to Chanukah they required the reading of the prophetic critique of Zachariah that true victory comes, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts" (4:6).

Luckily, Chanukah is not as pathetic as it seems. In fact, Chanukah is theologically and historically sublime. The true meaning of Chanukah is actually as important for Christians and Muslims as it is for Jews. It's just that you have to put down your artery-clogging latkes and do some historical research to get to the Tootsie Roll center of the candy-coated farce that Chanukah has become.

The first great lesson of Chanukah is that any living religion must take seriously what the best minds in the world are learning and teaching.

Chanukah was not just a revolt against the Syrian Greeks, it was a revolt against Hellenism, which was the philosophical and cultural legacy of the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great and his tutor, Aristotle. Judaism before Aristotle was philosophically illiterate. Judaism after Aristotle was a systemic and coherent faith. Judaism absorbed the Aristotelian ideas of matter and form and transformed them into the ideas of body and soul. This led to the belief in an afterlife for the immaterial soul, which enabled Judaism to save the idea of a benevolent all-powerful God by teaching that God's providence set askew in this world would be set right in the world to come. Through the Greeks and later the Romans, the principles of legal interpretation, like the argument from major to minor premise, became the foundational hermeneutic of Jewish law in the Talmud. And all these gifts came from the people the Maccabees wanted to kill.

At the heart of the Maccabean revolt was a rebellion against modernity and against the union of systematic thought and faith. Happily for us, the Maccabees lost. They won for a time, but eventually they were defeated and the Hasmonean priesthood collapsed under the Roman conquest in the first century. Then those Greek-intoxicated Jewish intellectuals who called each other rabbi took over and put Judaism on a serious philosophical footing. They bequeathed this legacy to Christianity, which took it through Augustine to Aquinas to new heights of theological speculation about natural law. In Islam, the legacy birthed the Mutakallimun, the eighth-century philosophical school of the Kalam, which enabled Muslim philosophers to also give philosophical substance to Muslim teachings in the Qur'an and also to labor to preserve Greek texts when Europe was in the dark. All of this came from the people the Maccabees wanted to kill.

The second lesson of Chanukah is that even though the best ideas of the world must be studied, the worst ideas of the world must be fought.

The Maccabees were wrong, but they were not totally wrong. They opposed worshiping Zeus, they opposed pagan sacrifices, they opposed the cult of the human body. They opposed sexual orgies. In the end, the lesson of Chanukah is the great wisdom that traditions must allow reason and revelation, tradition and modernity, to each have their say and then use the values of the past to selectively absorb the best the world has to offer in our neverending quest to understand God's ways in the world. Religions that simply trash the old in favor of passing intellectual fads end up selling their birthright for a mess of wild stew. However, in Aquinas, Maimonides, and Averroes (ibn Rushd) we see the way that faith can renew itself and the way that religious and intellectual genius can combine to deepen the truth that God intends for us all to know.

The battle of Chanukah is being fought today as we consider the nature of Creation, the family, warfare and the beginnings of human life. Every religion has its zealots, and their war cries often drown out the quiet wise voices of faith and reason working together. This Chanukah, I will think of how the zealots on all sides must be defeated. This Chanukah, I will pray for a true miracle, not a miracle of oil but a miracle of the human mind and the human soul. Now that would be a miracle that might even make me forget Handel and love "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel."