Hanukkah and Identity
You could say Hanukkah is about identity. Most Jewish holidays are. On these special days, Jews around the world tell stories, recite prayers, and play games that have been shared and chanted and enjoyed by their ancestors for thousands of years. The history and heritage that infuse these holy days helps define who is Jewish and who is not.
But what does it mean to be a Jew these days? Especially in the United States, many Jews practice a lackadaisical faith, if they practice one at all. I’m reminded of the non-practicing Catholic patient recently told me, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” She didn’t have to believe; it was in her blood.
So who gets to decide who’s a Jew and who’s not? As William Miles, a Jew from North America who celebrated Hanukkah with black Jews in Nigeria, put it “[T]o whom does Judaism belong?”  Is Judaism a cultural, ethnic, or religious appellation? Some people claim the Nigerian Jews don’t have enough Jewish DNA to be considered Jews, yet they were faithful to the covenant and consistent in their religious practices. How, Miles wondered, could they be less Jewish than Jews who rejected the faith of their ancestors?
Being Jewish is about more than one’s DNA. Reciting the same prayers and celebrating the same holidays bind us to our community. This is true whether we are Muslims praying at the same time as Muslims throughout the world, secular European-Americans celebrating Thanksgiving on the same day, or diaspora Jews lighting the Hanukkah menorah.
The Soul of Judaism
Yet we are not just our religious practices. We are a complicated mix of race, ethnicity, religion, and culture. Where we are born, what stories our families tell, our sexual orientation, the size and shape of our bodies, how much money we have, and so much more, are pieces of who we are. Out of these things, we form an identity.
So Hanukkah is just one, small piece of what it means to be a Jew. On the other hand, the holiday honors an event that was something of a battle over the soul of Judaism.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes became the ruler of Syria. After subduing Egypt, he turned his sights toward Jerusalem, plundering Jewish temples and desecrating their altars. He insisted, upon pain of death, that Jews adopt the Greek religion and lifestyle.
For some of the wealthy Jews, this was not so difficult. Most of them had already integrated themselves into Greek society, engaging in Greek sports, hanging out with Gentiles at the baths, eating forbidden foods, and even forgoing circumcision, that mark of the Jewish covenant with God. So if the Greeks ordered these Jews to choose between sacrificing a pig on their altar or dying, they didn’t have to think long. 
But many Jews, especially those who lived by their labor or chose not to fraternize with the Gentiles, could not imagine forsaking their faith. They identified, not with Greek society, but their status as God’s chosen people. What mattered to them was their relationship with Yahweh. If they betrayed that, who would they be? Who would they be if they didn’t recite the prayers, or follow the cleanliness code, or eat kosher, or wear the proper clothes? They couldn’t separate their faith from their life. To give up their religion would like giving up themselves. They preferred death.
Around this time, a priest named Mattathias discovered the king’s soldiers defiling the temple. When they saw him gaping at them, the soldiers demanded that, as a person of respect and honor in the town, he pledge his allegiance to Antiochus by sacrificing a pig on the altar. Mattathias refused, so another Jew stepped forward to do so.
Horrified at this, Mattathias’ “heart was stirred.” He became righteous in his anger and killed the other Jew, slew the king’s officer, and dismantled the altar. “Then he burned with zeal for the law” (1 Macc 2:26).
That was the beginning of a three year’s war. Mattathias and his band of Maccabees were victorious, throwing off Greek sovereignty. It was, for them, a sign that God was pleased by their faithfulness.
After winning the war, Mattathias returned to the temple to rebuild the altar and rededicate the space. For eight days, he and his loyalists celebrated, and for nearly 100 years afterwards, the Jewish people enjoyed independence.  They were able to be their full selves, free of fear.
Festival of Lights
By itself, however, this tale does not make Hanukkah. Jews light the eight-chambered menorah not because the Maccabees celebrated for eight days, but because of a miracle story told in the Talmud. 
It is said that when the Maccabees went to light the candelabrum, they discovered the Greek soldiers had spilled nearly all their oil. Only one vial remained, and it held just enough fuel for a day’s worth of light. Yet, miracle of miracles, the flame burned for eight days. Again, they knew God approved. By lighting a candle on each of the eight days, Jews offer thanks for this blessing. 
This is a happy holiday, filled with light, with the giving of presents, with silly games. It’s also a time to remember what it means to be Jewish. The flickering candles symbolize the miracle of God’s love and grace, but also the faith and spirit of Judaism. The holiday reminds Jews of the connection they have with a tribe of wanderers, a reviled and oppressed people without a home, who nonetheless ended up victorious, never forsaking who they really were.
Yet the Jewish people did not prevail by themselves. Without God, they are nothing. God saved them from slavery in Egypt, brought them to the promised land, helps them survive pogroms and terrorism. On the website My Jewish Learning, the editors quote from the book of Zechariah: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts” (Zech 4:6). In other words, though the Jewish story contains wars and struggle, they depend on God’s blessings to succeed. 
Whether or not we have such a bond with our past, or such a connection with our god, we still have a need to understand who we are. We create identities that bond us with others. This can lead to nationalism and patriotism or to altruism and generosity. The identities we claim for ourselves dictate who we fight for and whom we fight against. We want to belong, and we want to feel pride in our heritage.
Yet Jews understand what it is to have a checkered history. Pride and shame mingle. They know how it feels to be vulnerable and to fail their god. They know that even our heroes are human and imperfect. Their Scripture shows us this, over and over, in the tales of flawed leaders and patriarchs.
None of us have an unblemished history, but not all of us are willing to acknowledge the failures and losses that contribute to a life. Instead of asking questions and seeking to understand ourselves, we might choose to justify our power and claim God’s blessing for our own people and no other. Jews do this, too. None of us are immune from a belief in our own religious purity and sovereignty.
Nonetheless, if we choose to look within, to discover who we are beneath the bravado, we might learn some uncomfortable facts about ourselves, but we might also uncover some wonderful things, as well.
Of course, many of us are too scared to look. Acceptance can be hard to come by. We might have grown up with so much internalized shame, we can’t bear to face it. Instead, we hide behind a facade of righteousness and power. Turning that shame outward, we judge others.
If we are lucky, we find a place where we feel safe and can be our true selves. In his article about theater and the LGBTQ+ community, J. Sylvan describes how theater is often that kind of place for queer folk. Being a queer teenager, he did not always feel welcome. His family hardly ever went to church, so he would attend services with his Protestant friends. In a footnote, Sylvan explains that he soon learned he couldn’t be his true self in those communities of the faithful. It was clear he “would not be wholly welcome.” 
He was fortunate, though. He found a home in theater, a place where he could hang out with queers like him and with others who felt they didn’t belong. There are so many outcasts in our society: felons, prostitutes, addicts, battered and abused men and women, atypical individuals of all kinds. Where can they be wholly themselves? Who will take them in? Who will love them?
It’s not that all behavior should be acceptable, nor any identity approved of automatically. We ought to ask who our actions serve. Do they help or harm? Have we created our identity out of pieces of other people’s lives, taking on stories that don’t belong to us? Or have we found our true selves?
The Withdrawal of God
What do we find when we look into our own hearts and spirits? When we sit in silent reflection, we often experience something expansive, connected, infinite. On the other hand, we might experience emptiness. I’m not talking about the emptiness of nirvana, as in Buddhist teachings, but the emptiness of lack. Sometimes it feels as if something is missing inside us. Could this be the divine essence, that thing we call God, an Isness that is both there and not there?
Nicole Krauss speaks of this lack in her book, Forest Dark. She is referring to Isaac Ben Solomon Luria’s concept of tzimtzum, which means “withdrawal” or “contraction.” As Luria explains, before God could create life, he had to withdraw so there would be a place where God was not, a place that could be filled with something other, something not-God. We are part of the not-God. 
To help us understand this concept of God’s contraction or withdrawal, the author Tzvi Freeman tells a parable of a wise teacher who wants to impart wisdom to her student. If she were to pour out all that she knew, the student would be mystified. Nothing in the student’s life experience would prepare him for the elder’s insights.
Wisdom in Parables
So what must she do? She must seek to know the mind of her student. By entering into his world, perceiving things through his sight, she can begin to share ideas in a way he can understand. According to Freeman, though, true wisdom can only be passed down through parable, for parable can be remembered, explored, and re-imagined. By revisiting the parable, the student begins to make it his, until he knows it, owns it, becomes it.
How is this tzimtzum? In order to realize what story to tell her student, the elder must put herself aside. She must withdraw. Then the student’s own wisdom can be born. 
Thus, God leaves us, because only then can our own wisdom be born. Yet we cannot discover that wisdom unless we seek something other than our own thoughts. We must listen to the stories of our elders, of our culture, of our faith. We must revisit them and let them grow within us. By seeking and by listening, we become who we are and who we’re meant to be. Eventually, we might discover God in the midst of the emptiness that burns within us.
To Go Forth
To explain how this works, Krauss uses Abraham as an example. In the days before Abram had become Abraham, God told him to leave the land of his fathers and go to a place God would show him. Lech lecha, God said. Go.
But lech lecha isn’t just about moving to another home. Rather, God was telling “Abram to go out of himself so that he might make space for what God intended him to be.” 
This story of Abram who became Abraham, the story of the miracle of the light, the parables and history that make up the Jewish identity all depend on the mystery of a god who makes space for us to be alive and to become who we are. Even the story of Adam and Eve is a story of becoming, of leaving home to find ourselves, of allowing ourselves to empty so that we might then be filled. As Krauss points out, by telling the couple not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, God “plants the idea in Eve” in the first place.  As every parent knows, we want what we are told we cannot have.
So God puts us on this road of self discovery, and we start on that journey by leaving the place that is God. At the same time, we carry within us a piece of that infinite divinity, and we long to go back to that source so we can become even more fully who we are.
The poet, David Whyte, in his essay about shyness, describes a vulnerability that allows us to return to the presence of that divinity. Shyness, he writes “is the sense of a great unknown.”  Not knowing how the future will play out, we don’t know what to do, what to say, what to wear. Nothing seems right. We feel uncomfortable in our skin, uncertain who we are.
Unless we can allow ourselves to be shy, however, to be vulnerable, to recognize that there is something bigger than we are, something grander, something wholly other that claims us, we will not be able to find the self that is waiting to be discovered. Shyness allows us to admit how small, insignificant, and — at the same time — how grand we are. It is “the first necessary crossroads on the path of becoming.” 
Through shyness, we get out of the way of our growth. We sit in awe, we wait and wonder, we listen and hope, we revisit the parable, we stand ready for “revelation.” 
This is not an easy thing to do, though. In the United States, we don’t appreciate shyness, nor do we revere those who slow down, listen to that still voice inside us. We prefer action. Like the Maccabees who rush forward to kill and defend their faith, we believe there is a right way and a wrong way, and we will never accept what is wrong. We are anything but shy.
Yet just as our country’s story is full of terror and misery, of battles and self-righteousness, it is also filled with nobility and kindness. All stories are.
Even the creation of the world is full of light and darkness. In Luria’s story of tzimtzum, he tells us that after God withdrew and the universe came into existence, there was, for a time, harmony. Then the vessels that contained God’s light became stressed, and they cracked. As they split, evil entered the creation. Harmony and disharmony came to exist side-by-side. 
This tension is not the end, though. The created creature, that which is nature and that which is us, longs to return to that infinite source. To do so, we must repair the cracks in the world. This repair is called tikkun olam. But, as Krauss writes, we can’t repair the world unless we first transform ourselves. This is tikkun ba’nefesh, an internal change, a questioning, a creating of space within us so that we might journey on that path of becoming. We need to create empty space within us so it can “be filled again with its portion of infinity.” 
The Miracle of Light
The story of Hanukkah reminds Jews of who they are. It serves as a parable that, when retold and reconsidered time and again, allows wisdom to grow within us. We all have stories from our families, our society, our faith. The more we know about these stories, the better able we are to use them to guide us in becoming our true selves.
First, though, we must empty ourselves of knowing. We must be shy. When we accept stories without question, when we assume we know the answer, that we understand who we are and why, we close ourselves off to the mystery. We leave no open space within us for questions. Not even the infinite can penetrate the walls we put up when we refuse to open our hearts to the unknown.
The Hanukkah story can be told to justify war and aggression, or it can be told as a mystery tale, as a miracle that kept alive a relationship between a people and their god. If we can imagine it could be God’s might and not ours that matters, we will have taken a step toward shyness. We will have opened ourselves to mystery and the sacred. In the universe, there exists that sacred, infinite source that is not-us.
According to Luria, we long to return to that source. To do so, we must heal the world. To heal the world, we must heal ourselves. Before we can heal ourselves, we must open to that source we long for. That means creating space within us for the mystery, for the not knowing, and for the miracle of the light that didn’t go out.
In faith and fondness,
- Miles, William. “Among the ‘Jubos’ During the Festival of Lights.” Transition, no. 105, 2011, pp. 30–45, 32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/transition.105.30. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
- See Hall, Robert G., “Epispasm: Circumcision in Reverse,” Bible Review, August 1992: pp. 52-57, The Circumcision Reference Library, http://www.cirp.org/library/restoration/hall1/, accessed 12/9/20.
- Anderson, Bernhard W., Understanding the Old Testament, 4th ed., Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986, 618.
- Ross, Lesli Koppelman, “What You Need to Know about the Hanukkah Story,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-maccabean-revolt/, accesse 12/9/20.
- “The Story of Chanukah, Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/102978/jewish/The-Story-of-Chanukah.htm, accessed 12/9/20, excerpted from Nissan Mindel’s The Complete Story of Chanukah.
- “Hanukkah Themes and Theology,” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-themes-and-theology/, accessed 12/9/20.
- Sylvan, J., “Theater as Chaplaincy for the LGBTQ+ Community,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Autumn/Winter 2020, 6-12, 8.
- Schatz-Uffenheimer, Rivka, “Isaac ben Solomon Luria: Jewish Mystic,” Britannica, August 1, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-ben-Solomon-Luria, accessed 12/11/20.
- Freeman, Tzvi, “What Is Tsimtsum: Presence through Absence,” Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2047206/jewish/Tsimtsum.htm, accessed 12/11/20.
- Krauss, Nicole, Forest Dark, New York: HarperCollins, 2017, 264-5.
- Ibid 107.
- Whyte, David, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2016, 209.
- Ibid 210.
- Klauss 145.
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