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Home » Chanukah

The Modern Chanukah

Submitted by on December 10, 2022 – 9:34 pmNo Comment | 3,547 views

I want to tell you about the modern Chanukah message, but first we must begin with the old Chanukah tale.

The strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few.” This is how our liturgy describes the Chanukah miracle. The strong are the Syrian Greek army who mustered a vast army of thirty thousand troops. The weak were the heroic Maccabees, who faced down the powerful warriors.

This description conjures up images of wizened old men on wobbly knees, wielding swords with trembling hands. Staring up at a vast army of powerful warriors, they fully expect to lose, but miraculously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But this is not reflective of the facts. Josephus described the Maccabees as fearless powerful warriors whose prowess alone could even the odds. The might of their sword, the steel of their resolve, and the fierceness of their courage could bring mighty armies to their knees. Why then do our prayers rewrite history in a manner that makes the Jewish fighters, the courageous heroes, seem weak?

G-d’s Instruments
When our liturgy describes our army as weak, it is not a measure of their strength. It is a measure of their attitude. The Maccabees were fearsome warriors, but they did not place their trust in their strength. They placed their trust in G-d. Had they trusted their strength, they would have made serious dents in the Syrian Greek lines, but they would not have prevailed. Rather than trust their strength, they viewed it as a channel for G-d’s strength.

They hurled themselves into battle and impossible odds believing that their sharp thrusts, lightening moves, and seasoned experience would serve as instruments for G-d’s miracles. They parried and thrust, waded into large clusters of enemy combatants, and won every battle. Upon their victories they did not dance victory laps, instead they sang G-d’s praises. In preparation for battle, they did not practice and train, instead they knelt in prayer.

We now understand why the Maccabees are described as weak. It is a description of their mindset, not their physical state. They dismissed their own prowess, courage, and heroism, and relied completely on G-d. As opposed to their enemies who placed their faith in their own strength. Thus, it is true to say that G-d placed the strong in the hands of the weak. Those who viewed themselves as strong were placed in the hands of those who believed that G-d could perform miracles through them even if they were weak.[1]

The Showdown
This was not a war of territorial conquest. It was a clash of cultures and ideologies. Hellenistic culture was fully invested in the perfection of human capacity. The Jewish culture was completely committed to Divine perfection. Perfection is only within human reach, argued the Jew, by submission to the perfect G-d. The Hellenist decried this and argued that man is inherently perfect.

This filtered down to their fighting methods. The Hellenists fought by the might of their sword. They relied on their superior training and their officer’s ability to manage the battlefield. Jews trained minimally and believed that victory would come by the hand of G-d. If they trusted in G-d, prayed for Divine assistance, and made themselves worthy, their efforts would meet with victory.

Cut Flower Culture
Until this point, this essay was a rather boiler plate Chanukah teaching. I want to take a sharp turn at this point. What I write might not make everyone happy, but it is a modern Chanukah message.

Since the Renaissance, the traditions of Western civilization were rooted in scripture. Western values derived their meaning and authenticity from the biblical tradition. The foundation of this canon was faith and although many faith practitioners abused their power, no one questioned the importance of faith and religion.

In 1654, the puritans escaped England, where they were persecuted for their faith, and established a free homeland in America where faith could be practiced freely. This gave rise to freedom of religion—the freedom to practice any faith we choose. In theory, this principle also permits those inclined to practice no religion whatsoever. But this was so rare that it was rarely contemplated as a threat.

In the second half of the last century, liberal Americans began to reimagine the entire political landscape. Rather than viewing the West as a bastion of religious freedom, they began to treat it as a bastion free of religion. Lawsuits were filed and prayer was removed from the public school, followed by G-d’s name, etc. Before long, the public square became religion free. Ironically, the mention of faith in the public sphere was treated as blasphemous.

The catchphrase was tolerance. Religion was touted as intolerant, and its influence had to be banned from the public sphere to free the public of judgementalism. The thinking was that religion and faith are not required for ethical civic comport. The values of the West would remain sound without the intrusion of faith. We would continue to cherish life, freedom, and family values. Sadly, this could not last.

In his book, Judaism and Modern Man, Will Herberg wrote about the cut flower culture. Just as flowers flourish in their vases for several days after being cut, but eventually die, so do values eventually wither when they are cut from faith. Today, rather than cherish life, we treat those who butcher fetuses as heroes and those who champion fetal life as mercenaries. We do the same on the other end of the spectrum. Those who advocate for assisted suicide are heroes. Those who advocate against it are monstrous.

Family values have been upended. Today, children are taught that the traditional family structure is oppressive and judgmental. True freedom and heroism lie in alternative orientations. Even worse, the practice of stunting puberty and castrating children is called gender affirming. A cruel and twisted joke.

What happened to freedom? Freedom of education is twisting in the wind. On college campuses, students are either expelled from class or ridiculed by their teachers and peers if they disagree with cultural mores. Institutions dedicated to learning all points of view, including faith-based views, are now dedicated to progressive indoctrination. In public schools, children are exposed to radical teachings about history, gender, and sexuality. They are made to feel guilty simply for the color of their skin. The fight used to be to ignore the color of our skin. Now white children are taught to feel guilty for their whiteness. Moreover, some parents who spoke out at School Board meetings, were investigated and harassed by the FBI.

When people spoke their minds during Covid, they were labeled deviant and were silenced. The most outspoken were arrested, including clerics and pastors. Doctors were threatened and influencers were silenced on social media and in real life. Today, freedom of speech is seen as hateful and, shockingly, many in the West perceive censorship and suppression as a value in the name of reducing hate and making people feel safe. All this has resulted in the most unsafe environment in Western History.

How did this come about? Will Herberg had it right. It is the cut flower syndrome. When you remove faith from the public sphere, faith-based values wither and die. When you allow humans to determine your values, the most cherished principles are turned on their head. We are back to the Hellenist Jewish divide of Chanukah. The Hellenists compelled Jews to forego religion for the sake of progress. Shabbat and circumcision were outlawed. The code of kashrut was derided. Faith and religion were ridiculed.

Today, there is much of the same. Children are taught, and the media preaches, that religious values are oppressive and modern values are progressive. Parents who seek to shield their children and protect their innocence are branded enemies who have their children’s worst interests at heart. It is a modern Chanukah—as dystopian a society as you will ever see, yet everyone pretends we are happy and free.

The Modern Chanukah Miracle
What then are we to celebrate when we light the candles this Chanukah? Has the message of Chanukah been snuffed out?

The answer is absolutely not. The message of Chanukah has never been clearer. Until recently, people could easily conflate pure faith with secular humanism. This meant that the public square was more moral, but it also meant that people could easily dismiss the need for faith and religion.

Today, the dregs have settled, and the difference between light and dark, good and bad, is easily discerned. It is no longer mixed; we are no longer confused. One of the indicators of the coming of Mashiach is that we will gain clarity and perspicacity. This has been achieved in our day. Mashiach is on our doorstep. The time for his arrival is here. The public square is no longer a replacement for G-d’s teachings, and we are at a place where the message of Chanukah has returned to its roots.

Chanukah is no longer a secular holiday of jelly donuts and lights. The modern Chanukah is a holiday of fierce commitment to G-d and faith. It is a triumph of purity over impurity, righteousness over lewdness and cruelty, and the biblical canon over wickedness.

May the lights of Chanukah usher in the lights of Mashiach speedily in our days, Amen.


[1] Kedushas Levi, Derushei Chanukah.