Our Hanukkah

Marc H. Ellis

Photo and link: Narrow Bridge Candles Photo: Marc Ellis
"Is it possible to remake Hanukkah to serve as a focal point for a Jewish theology of liberation?" 

With Hanukkah we think Festival of Lights and the Maccabean Revolt, of sacred oil and the struggle against the Hellenization of ancient Jewish life. Historical or apocryphal, we are ready for the eight nights that set us apart from Christians in North America and Palestinians in Israel. We relish our separateness. Jewishness persists.

Yet Hanukkah represents only a symbolic apartness. In our daily life, assimilation to the state and to power is now the Jewish norm. Most Jews live within the protective umbrella of the North American and Israeli empires. These empires are protected by militarized engines of injustice, toward native peoples, toward those of African descent, toward Palestinians. This assimilation has been true for decades but our awareness is growing. Thus the recent and ongoing explosion of our Jewish indigenous, the prophetic.

So unexpected was the reemergence of the prophetic, especially with the Holocaust and the state of Israel created in its shadow. Entire ideologies and theologies were constructed to prevent this renewed prophetic. New Jewish institutions have been built to police Jewish dissent. This makes the prophetic today, as in ancient time, costly. Even so, the essence of Jewishness persists.

In North America and Israel, Hanukkah has a dual constituency. On the one hand, Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews who relish, benefit from and enable empire, Constantinian Jews. On the other hand, Hanukkah is celebrated by those who seek community, inclusion and equality, Jews of Conscience. These constituencies are at odds.

There is a civil war within Jewish life as we celebrate Hanukkah this year. Constantinian Jews and Jews of Conscience are moving in radically different directions. Much is at stake, indeed the very meaning of what it means to be Jewish. The Jewish civil war isn't a passing phenomena either. Neither side of the Jewish civil war will convert the other. It is a fight to the finish.

The war between Constantinian Jews and Jews of Conscience is permanent.

Jews of Conscience have a choice. To abandon Hanukkah, and other Jewish holy days, Passover comes to mind, as lost to Constantinian Judaism. Or Jews of Conscience can wrestle with these holy days and stake our claim. Hanukkah as light in a dark time and as a site for struggle against assimilation to the state and power is ripe for Jews of Conscience to observe and hold high. If we are to do this, however, the historical and apocryphal must give way to our present. Mindful of history and myth, Jews of Conscience must make Hanukkah our own, in a liberationist framework, in the context of Jewish empowerment, the Jewish civil war and the collateral damaged parties to this conflict, native peoples, people of African descent, Palestinians.

Can we wrestle Hanukkah from its conformity to power, its North American competitive Christmas showmanship and domination of Palestinians? Is it possible to remake Hanukkah to serve as a focal point for a Jewish theology of liberation? We need to be brutally honest here. Simply to play Hanukkah as a clash with Constantinian Judaism is bound to fail. Constantinian Hanukkah has too much going for it to play with its symbols - only. The danger of religious calendars, including our own, is that they normalize conformism and dissent. God forbid, we end up replicating the endless and already lost Christian struggle to redefine what the "real" Christmas is.

As Jews, we watch this annual parsing of Christmas with bemusement. We know the same discourse will return next year. We know neither side is going anywhere. Hanukkah can be like that, too. Perhaps it  already is.

As with Christmas (and Easter), Hanukkah (and Passover) are shattered and in ruins. They are infected with atrocity. They will never be, they should never be, whole again. The challenge? What to do with our shattered fragments? What is left of these holy days? What can be gleaned from them? What has to be left behind?

To glean - garner, collect, gather, scrape together - Hanukkah. Indeed, what is left of holiness after atrocity?

Hanukkah is not the same - as it was. It cannot be reclaimed - as it was. Does Hanukkah's shattered fragments say anything to us today? A crucial test: What do the shattered fragments of Hanukkah say to those whom we oppress?

In the end, though, it is up to us. What does our celebration of Hanukkah say to and about us? Taking the tradition as it is, even with delightful rabbinic twists and turns, means our refusal to acknowledge the emergency we are in. As Jews, we dwell in the abyss of injustice. Should our celebrations be transformed into mourning rites?

However we observe the Jewish holy days, our celebrations should not be publically performed if they symbolize ruin to others. This is what we said, quite rightly, to our Christian neighbors about their theology of salvation after the Holocaust. On Hanukkah, in relation to Israel and the Palestinians, the same challenge must be applied to us.

We have arrived at the end of ethical Jewish history. As with Jewish life in general, the Hanukkah story can only be seen through this frame. The end is difficult to admit, let alone to live. Yet it is here that we become free. Since we are not returning to a tradition infected with atrocity, we are free to chart our course.

We are not alone. There are many others, from all walks of life, geographies and faith traditions who have reached their end as well. When Jews remember what has been lost, we are joined by a mixed multitude who have experienced similar loses. As fellow exiles, perhaps we can advise each other that none of us are going back. We can only move forward together.

The prophets have always gathered light in the darkness. This is the prophet's vocation. As Jews of Conscience, with other people of conscience, we must be light-gatherers. On Hanukkah, perhaps we can gather enough light to keep our human journey going for another year.

Marc H. Ellis is retired university professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University. He is the author and editor of more than 25 books, including Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation (1987, 1989, 2004) published by Baylor University Press