Defining Hanukkah: Pluralism

Hanukkah represents the struggle to follow one's values and religion in a pluralistic world that often demands uniformity.

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The Chasidim (pious ones) referred to in this article comprised a group of Jews known for their loyalty to traditional non-Hellenistic Judaism around the time of the Maccabees.  There is no relationship between these Chasidim and the much later Eastern European movement that developed in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

The question is: What model of Hanukkah can speak to this generation? Several important issues in Hanukkah's origins remain central in contemporary culture.

One theme is the clash of the universal with the particular. Hellenism saw itself as the universal human culture, open to all. But Mattathias, Judah Maccabee, and the brave people who saved Judaism were not fighting for a pluralist Judea. They were fighting against the state's enforcement of Hellenist worship because they believed it was a betrayal of Israel's covenant with God. When, after decades of fighting, they liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple, they established a state in which Jews could worship God in the right way- not in just any way. Hanukkah is not a model for total separation of church and state. 

On the other hand, the Maccabee victory saved particularist Judaism. It preserved the stubborn Jewish insistence on "doing their own thing" religiously; never mind the claims of universalism that only if all are citizens of one world and one faith will there truly be one humanity. By not disappearing, Jews have continued to force the world --down to this day--to accept the limits of centralization. Jewish existence has been a continued stumbling block to whatever political philosophy, religion, or economic system has claimed the right to abolish all distinctions for "the higher good of humanity." Since the centralizing forces often turned oppressive or obliterated local cultures and dignity, this Jewish resistance to homogenization has been a blessing to humanity and a continuing source of religious pluralism for everybody, not just the Jews.

In this time, too, many universal cultures--Marxism and Communism, triumphalist Christianity, certain forms of liberalism and radicalism, fascism, even monolithic Americanism--have demanded that Jews dissolve and become part of humankind. All these philosophies have claimed that Jews can depend on their principles and structures to provide for Jewish rights. The Maccabee revolution made clear that a universalism that denies the rights of the particular to exist is inherently totalitarian and will end up oppressing people in the name of one humanity.

Universalism must surrender its overweening demands and accept the universalism of pluralism. Only when the world admits that oneness comes out of particular existences, linked through over-arching unities, will it escape the inner dynamics of conformity that add to repression and cruelty.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).