Chanukah – Our culture

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By: Yuval Nemirovsky

We all know the festivity of Chanukah with the miracle of the 8 days and we have no problems to quickly identify the holiday as a Jewish holiday. We love to light the candles and we struggle not to eat many delicious “sufganiot” (Donuts).

 Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. But I asked myself why is this holiday so important?

Chanukah is not one of the “shloshet haregalim”, 3 main festivities that we observe because they are in the bible, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Nevertheless it is a very interesting pillar of our identity as Jews.

I realized that Chanukkah is important because it is the symbol of our fight to have a Jewish culture.

It is funny to think that we have today what is called the Maccabiah (Jewish Olympics) as something very Jewish. Don’t get me wrong, I love sports and I have been a participant of the Maccabiah more than once.

But in the ancient Greece, the Olympics were a cult to the body, a very important ritual for the Hellenic culture. The Greeks dedicated great part of their culture to the cult of the body. They had problems to see and understand other culture like the Jewish one.

The Greeks who didn’t want to let the Jewish people have autonomy over their land, or over their religion, during the 2nd century BC, saw themselves involved in a war with these same Jews.

  If the Maccabees were alive today, they would probably be very angry knowing that the Jewish people have a Maccabiah.

The main thing we learned from Hannukah  is that we always had people in the Jewish history that were more open to new cultures, sometimes too open and assimilated very fast, and many that were highly jealous and fought against every kind of repression sometimes without thinking of the future or the benefits to be an open society.

During the period of the Greek administration over the land of Israel, some scholars think the Jewish people were submerged in a civil war: Some modern scholars argue that the king was intervening in an internal civil war between the traditionalist Jews and the Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. Some scholars think that many possible reforms were the main reasons for traditional Jews to rebel; others think that behind the religious reasons, many social and economic reasons were hiding. The fact is that we couldn’t find a way to resolve our problems as Jews, and we fall into sinat achim (hate between brothers).

It is clear that without fighting to preserve our values and culture, there was a big possibility to loose them in the hand of the Greeks, but without Jews that were more open to the Hellenic culture, we never could survive during their time as rulers of the land of Israel and we could never develop many interesting things in our own culture.

Even in Zionism some of these questions about “Jewish Culture” were raised.  The father of the Political Zionism Theodor Herzl, describes in his book “Altneuland” how the “State for the Jewish people” should be. He believes in a state like any other state for the Jewish People. He even describes how the police uniforms should look like but he doesn’t describe the nature of the “Jewish State” because for him was granted that the state will be a secular western state.

 Ahad Haam , on the other hand, had a vision of Cultural Zionism. He describes the state of Israel more as a Jewish State (the spirit of Judaism) rather than just a “State for the Jews”. He insists that the Jewish culture should be put in practice in our daily life. Jewish values should be taught, Shabbat should have a special place in the society, our calendar should be the Jewish calendar but without becoming a state ruled by Jewish Law. He asks to create Israel following the history of the Jewish people, like any other country who was created by legends and narratives. He urges to create a state that has history and didn’t create itself from nothing from one day to the other. We have 67 years of state, but we have thousands of years of history and culture.

Nowadays the new revival of Judaism that is occurring in Israel is the product of these discussions about Jewish culture. We have for example MK Ruth Calderon  leading a big sector of the Israeli society towards a new era of Jewish culture. It is clear that the State of Israel “forgot” about the thousand of years of rich Jewish culture due to the fact that first we needed to build the “material” Israel to be able to reconnect to the spiritual Israel.

Nowadays, the state of Israel is still a mix of “Hellenized Jews” and “Sadducees”. We are still in a fight for the search of the Jewish culture. We have figures of politicians, trying to lead the country imitating other western countries. On the other hand, we have Ultra orthodox rabbis, which want a very strict Jewish Law.

We must now not to repeat our own mistakes in history. We must not follow into the temptation of a “civil war”, even if it is just a spiritual one.

We have the mission to reconnect to our legacy, culture, values and way of seeing the world.

We should never forget to fight for our culture and values, because they are a main factor of our identity but remember that we should always have a discussion in the Jewish world and in our Movement:

You have here an example about Hanukkah and the 2 rabbinical schools of Hillel and Shamai:

— The House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were discussing on the proper order in which to light the Hanukkah flames. Shammai opined that eight candles should be lit on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to one on the last night. Hillel argued in favor of starting with one candle and lighting an additional one every night, up to eight on the eighth night. Jewish law adopted the position of Hillel.

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