Source: e-mail received from: Ron Kronish, ICCI [communications@icci.org.il]
Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), Website: http://icci.org.il

 This week, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. As with any story, there are many interpretations and angles from    which the story of Hanukkah is told and understood. Most commonly, we teach of Judah Maccabee leading the Jewish people to defeat Antiochus and take back the Temple, which Antiochus had destroyed. According to legend, upon the re-dedication of the Temple, there was only enough oil to light the flame for one day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, until a new batch of oil was prepared.

The Hanukkah story, however, is far more complex than just a feel-good tale of Jews protecting and reclaiming the religion. Close examination of this story shows us that there was actually a significant rift within the Jewish people: some submitted to Antiochus’ law, neglecting their Jewish practices and offering sacrifices on the altar, and others, led by Mattathias and Judah, refused to accept Antiochus’ law and fought to defend Judaism.

At the heart of this story, we see a struggle over identity. There were those whose primary identity was connected to Judaism, and the suppression of their ability to practice Jewish rituals drove them to violence, some even killing other Jews who practiced differently. On the other extreme, there were those who were willing to compromise their Jewish identity completely to be a part of the broader community and survive under Antiochus’ rule.

The victory of the Jews led by Judah and the Maccabees is often interpreted as a victory of the traditionalists over assimilation. However, the way in which we celebrate Hanukkah serves as a testament to an ability to find some middle ground between the two extremes, to hold on to a strong Jewish identity while also being open to our broader surrounding communities. Perhaps the most famous custom associated with Hanukkah, the spinning of the dreidel or sevivon, actually came from a popular Christmas game in England, totum. Similarly, sufganiyot were originally an Austro-Hungarian carnival treat. These traditions have become integral parts of the Hanukkah celebration, eliciting excitement among people in celebrating this Jewish festival and taking pride in their Jewish identity.

Today, there are still extremes within Judaism, as within other religions, of those who reject any participation and cooperation outside the Jewish community and any progress within, as well as those who strive so much to be part of another community that they reject Judaism entirely. Our current Hanukkah celebrations, however, demonstrate that neither is necessary. We can participate in the broader world, adapting to local customs and traditions. There is much to be learned from other communities and other faiths, and these interactions often help to reinforce and strengthen our own identity.

At ICCI, we are a community of religiously diverse people devoted to our own respective religions, while simultaneously committed to understanding each others’ faiths and cultures. We understand that dialogue with people who have different faiths, worldviews, and traditions helps us to reflect on what shapes our own faiths and worldviews. We develop greater understanding of our own identities when we are challenged with someone else’s. We see our basic humanity as underlying our differences at the same time that we preserve our commitment to protecting all identities.

The victory of Judah over Antiochus is a victory over religious oppression, but it is also a bloody story of war as a result of this oppression. Let’s celebrate Hanukkah by rejecting religious intolerance and affirming our own religious identity, while accepting and respecting that of others.

Shalom, Salaam, and Peace,

The ICCI Team

Written by RfP Europe

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