Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties

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Miracles and Hanukkah

December 9, 2015
Posted by: Jessica Kosmin, Middle East Project Manager

This week I have been thinking about JCRC’s role as the public face of the Jewish community and how this relates to lighting of the hanukkiyah, one of the most public Jewish rituals.

At the time of the Maccabbees, in the mid-second century BCE, the Middle East, like today, was in the midst of social and political upheaval. In Judea, the Jews were an obvious obstacle to the attempts of Seleucid king Antiochus IV to consolidate his power and follow Rome’s example of unifying the disparate tribes and peoples under the banner of one religion. Unlike his father, who had allowed the Jews to live in relative peace, Antiochus IV proved less benevolent and outlawed Jewish ritual and practice. In 168 B.C.E., thousands of Jews were massacred in Judea. Syrian-Greek soldiers desecrated the Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs upon it.

A guerilla war ensued. The Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, successfully drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem within two years. The Talmud, referring to the events of the holiday we celebrate today, refers only to the apparent miracle linked to the rededication of the Temple. Despite having only enough oil for one night, the menorah’s flames in the Temple burned for eight nights. The focal point of our Hanukkah celebrations has always been the miracle of the burning oil, but the real miracle was the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom, despite what many today would consider an overly zealous regime.

By focusing so much on the divine miracle of oil, we may not consider the holiness of shaking off oppression and asserting one’s autonomy. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, Hanukkah has new meaning. Seeing the lights of the hanukkiyot burn in the windows of Jewish homes in Israel and around the world, we are reminded of the present day miracles of the self-determination of the Jewish people and the freedom of religion in liberal democracies. We should remember the times when Jews throughout history were unable to display hanukkiyot in their windows for fear of attack, and rejoice that we do not live in such fear.

In America today, we can make this minor Jewish holiday a holier experience by discussing with our families how we can assist those who seek independence and freedom from oppression. The beauty of Jewish ritual, in particular the lighting of the hanukkiyah, is a sign that our memory is long, our identity is unique and we are vividly aware of all that we have lost and won. The public display of our hanukiyot in our windows and community spaces turns private domestic ritual into a public event. It is a reminder that we have something special to offer our communities. We have a story to tell and to share with those who are in the midst of fighting oppression so that they too may enjoy the modern day miracles of freedom.

As political leaders seek to divide the country and incite fear of The Other, as refugees are demonized and as African Americans continue their autonomous liberation campaign to shake off oppressive forces, JCRC remains the perpetual hanukkiyah, the public face of the Jewish community sending a message to those communities that we stand with them.

PHOTO: Giant Hanukah candlelight ceremony at JCC, American Jewish Historical Society (Wikimedia Commons)