The Deeper Story of the Dark-Time Festivals of Light
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center
This coming Shabbat, we will have the opportunity to explore anew the meaning of Hanukkah. I hope we will go deeper than the Hanukkah story that is now most often shared — the Talmudic legend of the oil that should have been enough to last for one day but instead lasted for eight.
The story has its uses today in a time when we desperately need to conserve the use of oil and other forms of carbon-burning energy in order to heal our wounded planet – but there are deeper meanings to the festival that may speak more deeply to our people, hungry for connection to the Spirit in a time of Darkness.
This year, the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Eve. Hanukkah begins each year on the 25th day of the Jewish lunar month of Kislev. Christmas comes each year on the 25th day of the Western solar month of December. Since both Kislev and December are timed for early winter, both festivals come close to the day of the winter solstice, the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere.
Is all this a coincidence? I think not.
What do we know about the origins of each of these festivals?
In Jewish lore, Hanukkah is connected with the desecration and rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Its desecration by order of Antiochus, ruler of a Hellenistic Empire, came on the 25th of Kislev in the year we would now call 168 BCE. Three years later, the guerilla uprising led by the Maccabee brothers was successful in beginning the rededication of the Temple on the same day, 25 Kislev.
According to I Maccabees, a sacred book in Christian but not Jewish tradition, when the uprising succeeded in establishing control of the Temple once again, the victorious guerillas decided to celebrate the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot that had not been possible to observe during the three years of Imperial control. (Sukkot was traditionally the time of year when King Solomon dedicated the First Temple; a good time to rededicate the second one.)
But the Rabbis, about 200 years later, were worried that lionizing the Maccabees might lead to disastrous violent rebellions against the Roman Empire. (That’s why they never decided that the Books of the Maccabees were sacred for Jews.) So they put forward a legend about a bottle of olive oil that was supposed to light the Temple for one day but lasted eight – and thus explained the eight-day festival of Hanukkah.
But let’s go back to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus’ army on 25 Kislev back in 168 BCE. Why on that day?
Here let me make a leap of “midrashic history” or “imaginative historical reconstruction.” The 25th of a lunar “moonth” is the time of any month at which the moon diminishes and then vanishes. And Kislev is the month in which the sun is also at its darkest. This is a perfect time for a spiritually awe-struck ceremony affirming the dark-time and imploring both the light of the moon and the light of the sun to return –– which it does, year by year, confirming that it is a good thing to honor the gods at that moment. (And perhaps in terms we might today find more palatable, successful because the ceremony helped dispel dark depression and despair.)
So perhaps what for the Jews was Antiochus’ desecration of the Temple was for the Hellenistic Empire a celebration of this sacred moment in its own spiritual calendar, facing and transcending the dark of moon and sun –using practices that for the Jews were desecration?
Perhaps it was not only the memory of a guerrilla victory but the attractiveness of celebrating this moment of Light Renewed that drew the Jewish people into adopting and celebrating the festival? And perhaps the Talmud’s legend of the miraculous Light-bearing Lamp was a way of connecting the two — celebrating both Light Renewed and the breakthrough of political joy and Rededication in a time of darkness?
Now let us turn to the origins of Christmas. In the first few centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels did not give the date of his birth. And some modern commentators have pointed out that the descriptions of society at the time sound more like fall than winter.
Then in the Fourth Century, as Christianity was becoming the Established Church of the Roman Empire, the Church decided to make a major spiritual holy day of Jesus’ birth. But –- what day?
In Rome during those centuries, one of the most widely celebrated festivals was the Birth of Mithras, the god of a “mystery religion” with origins in Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean. And Mithras’ birthday was December 25.
The Christian Church adopted this day for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. One might see this as “surrendering to paganism” or as “cultural appropriation” or as a way of recognizing and affirming the spiritual power inherent in some aspects of another tradition.
Yet –- why, of all possible days in December, was the festival marked on the 25th? The Roman calendar was solar, not lunar or lunisolar. Was “December 25” an effort to transcribe the lunar “Kislev” date when the moon was vanishing, into a solar calendar?
I would called Hanukkah and Chrstmas “siblings” because they were both born from a “pagan” mother, celebrating Mother Earth. Though they are not twins, they share some DNA — the theme of kindling light in a time of encroaching darkness. They even share the notion of a Tree of Light – though our trees are very different. Both also emphasize joy at a time of what for many may be “SADness: — Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
And there is a shared theme of spiritual or political resistance to the forces of Imperial oppression. In Hanukkah this theme is boldly lit, in the story of the Maccabeean revolt led by a small-town family. In Christmas it is muted, but Caesar Augustus and the murderous King Herod are the dark forces in the world when light is born in Jesus — the child of a working-class carpenter so poor the family could not find a hotel room for his birthing.
So what does this mean for me and for us?
First of all, as in 1981 I wrote the handbook of Jewish festivals called Seasons of Our Joy, it became clearer and clearer to me that the “seasons” celebrated by the festivals were rooted in the dance of Earth with Moon and Sun. When the book was published, its first review by a Jewish magazine dismissed it as a “pagan” distortion of Judaism. Yet, just as I freed myself from that kind of stifling darkness, the Jewish world began to free itself as well to dance in a warmer light. Seasons of Our Joy came to be called a “classic,” rather than a travesty.
(Indeed, it is now in its third edition, published by the Jewish Publication Society with a new section on how even since its original publication there continue to be creative birthings of new ways of celebrating . You can get a copy through <http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Seasons-of-Our-Joy,675595.aspx>)
And finally, the wide world. We are certainly living in a dark time. We have a President-Elect who threatens the press, who appoints a racist to be Attorney-General and a White Supremacist to guide his over-all strategy, who dismisses the climate crisis as a hoax and turns over Earth policy to the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs to commit their profit-obsessed arson against our common home.
But the Maccabees did win over a swollen Elephantine Empire. This year we can begin our Resistance right now: No Bannon, no Jeff Sessions, no registry of Muslims, no deportation of undocumented millions. Into every local gas station of the planetary arsonist Exxon as well as into every Senator’s eyes and ears we can carry the message: “No chief of Exxon, father of lies about the Earth and oil, to be Secretary of State.
By Resisting with active and assertive nonviolence, we can embody the wisdom of the Prophet Zechariah (4: 6), in the Haftarah the ancient Rabbis taught us to read for Shabbat Hanukkah: “ ‘Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit,’ said the Infinite Breathing Spirit of the world.”
Zechariah also envisions that in the rebuilt Temple, the light-bearing Menorah, itself a Tree of Light with branches, calyxes, flowers shaped in gold, will be flanked by two olive trees. Already a break with tradition!
And then Zechariah (4: 11-12)rises to Prophetic ecstasy when he sees those two trees feeding their oil directly into the Menorah. This tiny forest of three trees – a forest that both grows from earth and is carved out by human hands — reminds us that our human species began, the Torah teaches, when adam was born from adamah (Gen. 2: 7). The story reminds us that just as the two words are intertwined, so Earth and human earthlings are intertwined. Zechariah gives us a physical symbol of that Truth, at the heart of our most sacred space.
As Hanukkah promises, The Light does glow again each year as the darkness dissipates. This year at Hanukkah we can breathe deeply in the Breath of Life Whose “Name” is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, which can only be “pronounced” by simply breathing,. We can look into each others’ light-filled eyes, and light our varied lights against the stifling darkness.
Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth! — Arthur