Brandeis University News
“Dreidel Man” greets a young girl at the annual National Menorah Lighting for Hanukkah at the Ellipse park near the White House, Dec. 12, 2018. (Al Drago/Getty Images)
(JTA) — A band of religious zealots, in the face of imperialist forces that threaten their faith, band together and, battling enemies within and without, take control of their country. They establish a theocracy that quickly becomes corrupt.
This is the premise of the holiday currently being observed by American Jews, who tend to be liberal in their views.
Or is it? The dueling narratives of Hanukkah have been baked (or fried) into Jewish tradition for ages. Are Jews celebrating the military victory or the religious miracle of a small jug of oil that lasted eight days? Is the hero of the story Judah Maccabee, a general, or is it God? Is this a holiday celebrating Jewish power or divine providence?
The perennial tension between the Maccabees’ militarism and modern American Jewish dovishness arose again this week in a New York Times op-ed by novelist Michael David Lukas called “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.” Lukas laments that Hanukkah “commemorates an ancient battle against assimilation. And it’s the one holiday that most assimilated Jews celebrate.”
But that dichotomy, experts say, is false. The Maccabees weren’t exactly extremists. Their enemy was, indeed, causing real harm to Jews. The oil jug story appears to be a later innovation of the rabbis of the Talmud. And for a long time, American Jews were just fine with celebrating militarism.
“As a Jew this holiday is hard for me in terms of my kids asking about it because I have a hard time telling them what I actually know about it,” said Shayna Sheinfeld, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Kentucky who studies antiquity. “When we tell the story to our kids, we like to paint it …