The Last Candle


As the last candle of Hanukkah is lit tonight , bringing the holiday to an end for another year, my mind is drawn back to the meaning of the Festival of Lights, not only in the present, but also throughout history.

For me, it has always been a holiday about freedom and the resilience of the human spirit, but also a reminder that sometimes that freedom must be defended by decisive action, even violence when required.  Of course, this is an interpretation which is often at odds with modern thought especially within Judaism, but very much defines the complexities we face as rational people in an irrational world. People like to pretend that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas, about presents and doughnuts and blue and white furred stockings.

It’s not.

The following excellent essay looking at these aspects of the holiday has been reposted  from More Intelligent Life.



Adam LeBor spends the holiday season in his home-town of Budapest, where survival is something to celebrate, and Christopher Hitchens’s fulminations about Hannukah sound horribly out of place …

The Hannukah party at the Budapest Jewish community centre was enjoyable, if chaotic: a hall full of children running around, chomping on doughnuts, singing and dancing. There were six candles on the giant menorah; a grandmother, a father and several young children each lit one. It was a touching, and, for those who know something of Hungarian history, a poignant occasion. At around 80,000 strong, Hungary’s Jewish community is the second-largest in mainland Europe, after France’s, and Jewish life is reviving here.

Hannukah is a fun festival with games, presents and lots of fried food. For eight evenings in a row Jews light candles on a special holder—the menorah—to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple, in the second century BC, by the Maccabees. The candles commemorate the “miracle of the oil”, when enough consecrated oil to keep the Temple’s flame burning for one day lasted for eight.

But Hannukah has been getting a bad press this year, assailed by guilt-ridden liberals and post-modern deconstructionists. In Slate, Christopher Hitchens excoriates Hannukah as “the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness”. He argues that the festival of lights celebrates an “imposition of theocratic darkness” and “fundamentalist thuggery”.

Mr Hitchens, as we know from his best-selling book, “God is not Great”, is no fan of religion. For him and for other anti-Hannukahists the problem is the Maccabees, who led the revolt against the Seleucids, the Greek rulers of what is now Israel.

Jews were divided between Hellenisers who assimilated Greek culture, and traditionalists who defended their own. The Greeks banned all Jewish practices, including circumcision, and massacred those who disobeyed. When they ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the Jerusalem temple, it triggered a rebellion, around 165 BC, led by Mattathias Maccabee and his five sons, including Judah, who succeeded him.

The uprising was successful, the Seleucids were defeated and the Temple was recaptured. But bizarrely, Hitchens argues the Maccabees’ triumph was a disaster, not only for them, but for all humanity:

When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded

From here follow giant leaps of (il)logic: the Maccabees’ victory led to the birth of Christianity, Christian anti-Semitism, and even the rise of Islam—which is rather like arguing that the blitz and saturation bombing should be blamed on Isaac Newton, because he discovered gravity.

Mr Hitchens, among his many skills, is a professional contrarian. But when it comes to deconstructing Hannukah he is not alone. “A Very Osama Hannukah”, by Steve Almond, published on a hip “new-Jew” website, Jewcy (to which I also contribute), argues that Hannukah

arose from the exact struggle Bin Laden is waging today: an armed rebellion against an imperial power, driven by religious fanaticism and suicidal self-assertion

How so?

Because a Maccabee soldier killing a Seleucid war elephant by stabbing it from underneath, and so dying as it collapsed on top of him = suicide blomber in Iraq.

And because Judah Maccabee, killing a Greek general and putting his head on display = Jihadi beheading videos. And so on.

As with Hitchens’ claim that the Maccabees victory led to the birth of Islam, there is a massive logical flaw here: Osama Bin Laden has sought civilian deaths for their own sake. The Maccabees did not. They were fighting for freedom against Greek invaders. Jewcy also published a comic by Eli Valley and David Kelsey, portraying the Maccabees as tyrants, butchers and Roman collaborators. (In its defence, Jewcy also ran “Absolute Hannukah”, a compilation of the 50 best Hannukah web-links).

The Old Left would have seen the Maccabees as they were: heroic fighters in a classic anti-imperialist struggle. The New Left worries that they did not observe that era’s equivalent of the Geneva conventions (and nor did any other Biblical-era warring army). But does it even matter if various media trendies deconstruct Hannukah and recast the Maccabees’ fight for freedom as a Biblical-era slaughter that ushered in darkness across the land? Yes, it does. Hannukah may have been consumerised, even sanitised, but away from Washington, DC, and New York City, especially in eastern Europe, it retains both meaning and powerful resonance.

Here in Budapest each year, rabbis, Jewish community leaders and politicians light big public menorahs in downtown Budapest on Hannukah’s first night. One year they were howled down by skinheads, who had been allowed to demonstrate a few yards away. This year some fool set off an air-raid siren during the dedication before being arrested.

So here’s my advice for those troubled about Judah Maccabee’s un-PC approach to vanquishing his enemies. Join us in Budapest next year for the candle-lighting at the community centre, and then take a short walk to the Danube riverbank, where a cast-iron memorial of shoes commemorates those Jews who in the winter of 1944 were shot and dumped into the freezing waters. Then you will understand the real meaning of Hannukah: survival.




  1. *smiles* the Festival of Lights has a long pedigree, in many ancient religions across the Mediterreanean and northern Africa. In Egypt, according to Herodotus, he reports a very likely culturally related variant on the holiday, the “Feast of Lamps”. (depending on how authoritative one wants to take Herodotus of course… but there’s good evidence to think this account probably is true to large extent)

    “There is one night on which the inhabitants all burn a multitude of lights in the open air round their houses. They use lamps in the shape of flat saucers filled with a mixture of oil and salt, on top of which the wick floats. These burn the whole night, and give to the festival the name of the Feast of Lamps. The Egyptians who are absent from teh festival observe the night of the sacrifice, no less than the rest, by a general lighting of lamps; so that the illumination is not confined to the city of Sais, but extends across the whole of Egypt. And there is a religious reason assigned for the special honour paid to this night, as well as for the illumination which accompanies it.”

    It is indeed far older than “Christmas” as it’s celebrated today… which more than likely is (more or less) a melding of Sol Invictus/Mithraic celebration with the Saturnalia celebration, coopted as a holiday by the early Roman Church. and dates far younger than Hannukah does.

    As a side note, Saturnalia more than likely does have something in common culturally (the Mediterreanean has quite a lot of cross-cultural fertilisation for traditions in ancient religions) with the “festival of lights” that Hannukah is. (Sol Invictus and Mithraism was a very late Persian import)

    /geek off

    Any excuse to light candles is a good one for me :) I love them…

    I celebrate the season… celebrations, holidays, marking the passing of time, they are important to social culture. Time to be with family, to celebrate life and living together, these rituals in life are so very vital to a sane existence. It is one point where I always will disagree with atheists who take a strong position, mindless of the importance of traditions they wish to destroy.

    gah, I talk too much :)

  2. Not only that, but depending on the etiology of the Egyptian Festival of Lights, and the time it was first celebrated, it’s not unlikely it could have fed into the Maccabees’ struggle. The early Jewish people, conscripted as slaves in Egypt, adopted many practices just by virtue of osmosis.

    Without really understanding the struggle, and not being Jewish, my view on it was never simple: “the Jewish Christmas” never cut it for me as a description. For me, looking in from outside, it was always a celebration of the miraculous–we need oil to burn for eight days, we have oil for one. We must do what we can. Sooner or later we will run out and fall into darkness.

    But those first ‘we’ never did, and thus the commemoration is preserved. Has it gone secular? Yes, which is both good and bad. Bad, because any holy ritual homogenized and presented to a mass-producing public cheapens the inherent values–can we say, Samhain-now-Hallowe’en?

    But good, because the more symbols are seen, the more they become part of the collective myth-pool that everyone draws on, consciously or not. Seen and understood is even better, but for now, I’ll take seen, I’ll take not being invisible–at the very least, I can now go into most stores near this time and get Hanukkah cards, wrapping paper, find the colors if nothing else–to give to my Jewish friends who have children.

    But at the heart of it–and the heart of how it’s celebrated among my friends–is the celebration of the miraculous. We did not have enough. We prayed. We trusted. We received.

    Above and beyond rebellion to improve conditions, that also stands. And that, also, is survival.

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