Category Archives: Hanukkah

Brighter Times Are On the Way

It’s only mid-day and already more than several people have e-mailed me David Brooks’ NY Times editorial on the meaning of Hanukkah. As those who know and love me will attest, I am not a huge fan of the actual Maccabee story – so I was interested to read Brook’s fairly accurate historical retelling.

This insight, I thought, was especially spot on:

(The Maccabees) were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Not sure, though, about Brooks’ denouement – in which he offers his take on the central lesson of Hanukkah:

(There) is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

(Hmmm, not sure I want to retell that stirring lesson as I light the menorah tonight.)

Truth be told, with every passing year, I find myself relying less and less upon Maccabean history – however watered-down – to provide me with a spiritual foundation for the observance of Hanukkah. I’m much more interested in the universal meaning of the festival: increasing the light during an increasingly dark time of year.

This meaning, by the way, is not lost on Jewish tradition. Witness this lovely parable from the Talmud (which may well describe the earliest recorded case of Seasonal Affective Disorder):

When Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!”

So he began keeping an eight-day fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, “This is the world’s course,” and he set forth to keep an eight-day festivity.” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a)

Isn’t this all the lesson we need? As the dark descends, Hanukkah comes to remind us that brighter times are in our future. Keep it in mind as you light the first candle tonight.

Dreidel I’m Gon’ Play…

This year’s big Hanukkah release: “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” – an eclectic anthology compiled by Erran Baron Cohen and featuring songs performed by Cohen, Idan Raichel, Jules Brookes, Yasmin Levy and Orthodox African-American rapper, Y-Love.

Cohen has been fairly visible promoting his disc. He was recently interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he had this to say:

I remember from my childhood, listening to Hanukkah songs at home and listening to these children singing slightly out of key and some wonky old piano player to make a terrible record. The idea was to create a new concept in Jewish holiday music, something that everybody would enjoy listening to.

Click above for a taste: Cohen and Y-Love (along with some other unidentified hasidic-looking folk) performing “Dreidel” on Conan O’Brien.

Energy Bill Action Alert!

electricity1.jpgHere’s an important Action Alert from the Jewish Council on Public Affairs:

Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 235-181 to approve an energy bill that made significant strides toward reducing energy consumption while also strengthening our national economy. The House bill represented a carefully wrought compromise between the House and Senate to merge two bills into a single, comprehensive energy package. Unfortunately, the House’s accomplishment was met with immediate resistance in the Senate. In fact, the Senate voted last Friday against limiting debate, effectively barring passage of the bill.

The Senate’s vote means that the bill is now open to review and key components of the legislation will likely be removed if constituents do not speak up. In particular, some Senators are seeking to remove the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) and to restore tax breaks for oil companies. The Senate is currently negotiating revisions to the bill, which would address these measures.The RES is an integral component of a comprehensive energy bill as it reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. The House bill currently includes a 15% renewable electricity mandate. This provision would prevent an average of 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere annually by 2020 in addition to saving American families roughly $15 billion in cumulative consumer savings by 2020. If the bill is changed, it will be returned to the House for another vote – delaying, yet again, our adoption of a comprehensive energy plan.

The Jewish community has long advocated for energy policies that reduce our dependence on foreign oil, sustain our fragile environment and build a robust national economy. These goals are particularly meaningful during the festival of Chanukah, when we celebrate the miracle of one day’s oil that met 8 days’ needs. Help extend the miracle by urging your Senators to vote for an Energy Bill that includes the strongest elements of the House energy bill, including strong fuel economy standards, renewable fuel and renewable energy standards, and the U.S. Israel Energy Cooperation Act. Please visit here for more information.

Action Needed:

Encourage your members of Congress to vote YES on this landmark legislation and to make sure that it includes a renewable electricity mandate.

The Capitol Switchboard can be reached at (202) 224-3121. Click here for contact information for your Senators.

For further information, please contact Jennifer Kefer in JCPA’s Washington Office. She can be reached by telephone at (202) 212-6036 or by email at

The Miracle of Spiritual Sustainability


Our rabbis taught: “On the twenty-fifth of Kislev (begin) the eight days of Hanukkah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit (with that oil) for eight days…” (Talmud Shabbat 21b)

One essential teaching of this famous Talmudic passage is, quite simply, that a little bit can go a long way. Just a little light can keep us going through the darkest season, a little courage can inspire us to stand up to the greatest injustice, and little strength can sustain us even when all feels lost.

On this Shabbat Hanukkah, may we all be blessed with the miracle of spiritual sustainability…

Bah, Humbug…

judah.jpgAt the risk of coming off as Rabbi Grinch, I think it’s time you knew the real story of Hanukkah…

The brave heroes of our story, the Maccabees, came from a priestly dynasty known as the Hasmoneans. The leader of the Hasmoneans, Mattithias and his son Judah were what we might call today religious zealots. In 167 BCE they led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid rulers in the land of Israel but they also fought bitterly against the assimilated, Hellenized Jews of their day.

You can read all about this in the Books of the Maccabees, which can be found in the Apocrypha – a collection of extra-Biblical writings that never quite made the final cut. After plowing your way through these exceedingly graphic and nasty accounts of of Jewish fratricide, forced circumcision and other bloody examples of Jew against Jew, you’ll understand why. (You’ll also understand why Mel Gibson was once interested in developing this material into a movie…)

While we are fond of telling the story of the Maccabean victory and their re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, we don’t often tell the story of what happened to the independent Jewish state they established in the land of Israel afterwards. That’s because for the most part, the sequel to the Hanukkah story was a fairly ignoble chapter in the annals of Jewish history.

The Hasmonean dynasty eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when these priestly rulers weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. So much for the second Jewish commonwealth.

Yes, boys and girls, that’s the real story of Hanukkah. Don’t worry, I haven’t Scrooged-out here completely – I’ll be lighting the Hanukkiah tonight just like you. But maybe, as we light our candles, we should take some time out to ponder how we might commemorate this complex legacy as 21st century American Jews.

In an article last year in Slate, Rabbi James Ponet considered this very question by asking “was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity?” Great question. If you could put your dreidel down for just a moment, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts and comments.