I was as aghast as Rabbi Stern was by Christopher Hitchens’ article on Hanukkah in Slate from last week. Not because of the venomous rhetoric or offensive bombast–this is Hitchens’ stock-in-trade and without it it’s not clear anyone would know or care what he says.
What I found so appalling in Hitchens’ piece was how dramatically mistaken he is in his misguided efforts to uncover “the true meaning of Hanukkah.” Looking back at the historical events surrounding the birth of the holiday, Hitchens envisions Hanukkah as a victory for narrow-minded and superstitious fundamentalism (i.e. the Maccabees) over enlightened philosophical reason (i.e. the Seleucid Greeks, the victory over whom Hanukkah celebrates). Since enlightened philosophical reason is better than narrow-minded superstitious fundamentalism in Hitchens’ book, ipso facto anyone who celebrates Hanukkah is a retrograde philistine, Quod Erat Demonstrandum.
Of course what Hitchens utterly fails to recognize is that religious meanings and rituals are not frozen at a moment in time. Like any organic and dynamic system, religions evolve. So for the ancient rabbis, Hanukkah wasn’t about a military victory; it was about trusting Divine providence rather than our own power: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) In medieval times when Jews suffered the tribulations of living as despised denizens of Christian Europe, Hanukkah took on a more messianic tone, the hope for a coming redemption to deliver God’s people from their wretched state. In Chasidic thought, the message of Hanukkah was spiritualized: finding and increasing our own inner light, those sparks of God within each and every one of us, against the darkness of this physical world. For the early Zionists, Hanukkah became a symbol of Jewish power–Jews fighting for independence and self-determination in their own land. And for American Jews for much of the twentieth century, Hanukkah was a holiday of religious liberty–of an oppressed minority standing up for the right to worship freely.
Which of these many and varied interpretations is “the true meaning of Hanukkah”? They all are. The power of religious ritual and symbolism is that it has the capacity to bear an ever-expanding and evolving range of meanings rather than be captured in amber at a particular historic moment. Hitchens’ mistake–like that of all fundamentalists–is to think that if he can just strip away enough layers he will arrive at the truth. Unfortunately, he cannot see that it is the layers themselves that are the holiday’s true meaning.