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Israel: Hanukkah, festival of light and cultural wars

Hanukkah an all-time favorite Jewish holiday, has interesting historical value dealing with issues relevant to Israeli culture and sense of identity. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the ancient Israelites over the Greeks in a series of battles taking place around the year 165 BC. The battles were not about territory nor resources, but dealt with freedom; the right to practice religion and follow the Jewish faith.

While Hanukkah, traditionally speaking, is only a minor Jewish holiday, it has taken a place equal to Passover as a symbol of Jewish identity. Both the Israeli and North American versions of Hanukkah emphasize resistance, focusing on some combination of national liberation and religious freedom as the defining meaning of the holiday. “Classical rabbis usually downplay the military and nationalistic dimensions of Hanukkah, yet some even interpret the story of the miracle oil as a creative diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans.” (source)

חנוכה
image above: a lit menorah, symbolizing the miracle oil which provided light for eight consecutive days in the Jewish Temple

Hanukkah is celebrated in many homes spanning both secular and religious sectors of Israeli population. A recent survey shows that the majority of Israelis (83%) light a candle every single day of Hanukkah, an amazing figure considering the explicit religious-secular tear within the society. Israel is a country where many secular citizens feel the burden of religious law forced upon their everyday lives, since they identify as Israeli first, and Jewish second. (a great post on Jewish-Israeli identity)

A substantial difference between orthodox and secular Israeli perception of the holiday is evident from the Hebrew blogosphere. While the secular emphasizes the importance of family, tradition and delicious food that Hanukkah brings to their dinner tables, their counterparts focus on modern day Israel's loss of culture; its loss in the culture-war with the West. They highlight the irony of celebrating Hanukkah, which comes to commemorate the same war that the ancient Israelites fought against the Greeks thousands of years ago in order to preserve their culture.

In his blog entry, Rabbi Yehuda (Hebrew) depicts his thoughts on how current-day Israel has lost in its modern culture battle against Western culture:

The Greeks did not want to kill the Jews. They did not want to kill the people whom they conquered. They only wanted two things: money from the conquered people, and that people accept and perform according to Greek culture – horse racing, wrestling, play their music.

The Greeks believed that the Jews will come to their games, and eventually be lured to participate in their culture; that they will turn Greek and leave Judaism without being forced to.

Regretfully, the Greeks were correct. Most Israelis have converted to their culture, act according to their culture. Because it is obviously nicer to go to see shows in comparison to studying the Torah. And because of this pleasure-seeking behavior, they give up the holy Torah. The Hashmonean people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasmonean) fought over the right of the Israelites to follow god. They realized the importance of not only seeking immediate fun, but to take part in more important actions (…study the Torah).

For further background on the story of Hanukkah visit this post.

  • Abe Bird

    Two comments:

    1. I do not accept the fixation that “Israel is a country where many secular citizens feel the burden of religious law forced upon their everyday lives” and sure not that “most secular citizens in Israel identify as Israeli first, and Jewish second.” It’s quite untrue. Most of the secular Jews live well with the “burden of religious law” which mainly influences most of the secular Israelis to marry willingly by traditional law. Only few revolt and marry by citizen laws abroad (mainly when married with non Jewish).

    2. Jews didn’t revolted the Greeks because their culture, art, “horse racing, wrestling, play their music” and so. Jews did that well too by their own will in that time and later in history. The reason for the revolt was keeping faith. The Greeks forced Jews to worship their idols and leave G-D. The Greeks desecrate the holy temple. And the Jews revolted against that stance and action in their will to keep their identity, belief and values untouched and safe.

  • http://giladlotan.com Gilad Lotan

    + Abe, you are right that most secular Israelis live with the burden of religious law, but I have to argue that they most definitely do not “live well” with it. Israelis are very good at taking hardships and continuing on with their lives, not stopping. For instance, not living in fear when buses are blown up left right and center. So when it comes to the secular-religious status quo in Israel, many accept it, but that does not mean it is accepted well. The majority of Israelis are secular. And many of them resent being dictated by a strident ultra-orthodox minority.

    There’s more information here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Israel

    and also here – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/israel_at_50/israel_today/81033.stm

    + Correct. Like I wrote – “The battles were not about territory nor resources, but dealt with freedom; the right to practice religion and follow the Jewish faith.”
    Global Voices Online is about amplifying local voices. In the translated blog post, Rabbi Yehuda depicts his thoughts regarding some of the other Greek influences during that era.

  • http://lisagoldman.net Lisa

    Gilad, I am troubled by this post. It is far more an opinion piece (your opinion) than a roundup of the Israeli blogosphere. You present only one translated post by a relatively obscure Israeli blogger to support your thesis, and you do not provide links to support any of the claims you make in the first four paragraphs of your post.

    For example: “Classical rabbis usually downplay the military and nationalistic dimensions of Hanukkah, yet some even interpret the story of the miracle oil as a creative diversion away from the struggle with empires that had led to the disastrous downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans.”

    What is a “classical rabbi”? And which among them “downplays the military and nationalistic dimensions” of the holiday?

    Furthermore, who interprets the holiday in a military and nationalistic manner? I was never taught that the holiday had nationalist or military dimensions, and I have never heard it interpreted as such.

    I am a secular Jew living in Tel Aviv. I just returned from dinner at the home of friends who are also secular, as are nearly all my friends. At this Friday night Chanukah dinner, we ate pork and other unkosher foods, and we lit the candles because they are pretty, they remind us of our heritage, and the kids like them.

    Also, you neglected to mention that Chanukah is a post-Biblical holiday – i.e., the historical events it memorializes occurred after the Biblical period. It is mentioned in the Talmud – the compendium of Jewish law that was written during the fifth and third centuries BCE – and the only instruction is to light candles for 8 nights and say a blessing. Otherwise, this is as close to a non-religious holiday as you’re going to get within Judaism – or any religion, for that matter.

    Perhaps that is the real reason that Chanukah is so popular with secular Israelis – who, as you rightly point out – represent the vast majority of the population.

  • http://giladlotan.com Gilad Lotan

    Lisa,
    First of all, thanks for you questions and comments. You are right, Chanukkah (like Purim) is a post-Biblical holiday, which could be the main reason for its popularity.

    The wikipedia article I linked to in the previous comment contains much of the information I quoted regarding Hanukkah’s historical value.

    I am unsure where you were raised, but in this article I write about the mainstream Israeli-secular views – those who were born and raised in Israel. Those who consider themselves Israeli first and Jewish second (a surprisingly vast majority). I am not saying this is good or bad, but just stating it as a fact – because it is true, and rarely quoted in mainstream media. Hanukkah’s roots are extremely militaristic. As kids we were constantly taught about the Israelites battle over the Greeks, about their resistance from ‘hityavnut’ – their battle for freedom of religion. The irony of it all is that still today, neither sides of the religious spectrum in Israel feel like this war has come to an end.

    Global Voices aims to amplify local voices which are typically not heard. For this post, I’ve gone through numerous blog posts of secular israelis on the topic of Hanukkah. Many write about the dinners, family, and wonderful tradition. I decided to summarize them all in order for the piece itself to be shorter, and present a clear argument. Many of them can be seen on tapuz or israblog.

    Perhaps this article will be part of a longer-term research project, but for the scope of a GVO article, I think it touches a point that is rarely talked about, which I see of critical importance.

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