October 29, 1991

by Rabbi Daniel Schur

Had the Rabbis of the Talmud lived in the 20th century America, they probably would not have found it necessary to ask the question, "MAI CHANUKAH?" ("What is Chanukah?"). Chanukah has become more intensely observed and more widely recognized than any other hoilday in the Jewish calendar. Even Jews who observe very little in the line of Jewish tradition during the rest of the year, somehow find the need to light the Chanukah candles.

But, I wonder, if even we, in this 20th Century America, who seem so proud of this Festival of Lights, ought not to stop and ask ourselves the same question posed by the Rabbis so many years ago. We too might well ask, What is "Chanukah"? What is this really minor festival that we all participate in? What is it all about? The goodly number of Jews who light the Chanukah candles do not realize that the victory that they are commemorating, was not so much the military victory of the Macabees over the Syrian army, but rather the victory fo traditional Jews over those Jews who desired to assimilate into the majority culture.

I often wonder, for example, if those Jews today who scoff at Jewish tradition, and who make light of Jewish practice - I wonder whether they would light the candles if they knew the true significance of Chanukah. The message and lesson of Chanukah is clear to anyone who reads the Book of the Macabees. On the one hand, these ancient books tell of the eagerness displayed by the upper classes in Jerusalem some 2,130 years ago, to abandon Torah, the Sabbath, and even circumcision, in their desire to be like the Non-Jew. They became Hellenized, not only in outward things, but in thought and life as well. On the other hand, the same books have preserved for us the important memory of men of strong pinciples, to whom Torah was dearer than life itself, men who were ready to live and die nobly in its defense.

We are witnessing a fundamentally similar spiritual conflict in the American Jewish community today - a clash between Jews who cherish our Jewish heritage and all the traditions and practices that go with it, and those Jews who would break away from Judaism, either by choice or by neglect.

Chanukah commemorates the victory of traditional Judaism over the forces of assimilation and imitation. Is it not a bit incongruous then, for Jews who observe no Jewish tradition, or who scoff at it, to kindle the Chanukah lights?

For, in the performance of this mitzvah, we are, in effect, hearing testimony to the Jewish values for which they have little or no regard. Chanukah can have meaning only for those who are ready to rededicate their lives to Jewish living at all times; Chanukah has meaning only to those who understand that Judaism requires self-sacrifice for its religious duties and obligations. Chanukah has meaning only to those who recognize in the candles that they are kindling, the light of Torah and Mitzvos, Shabbos and Kashrus, and family sanctity (Mikveh).

The lit Chanukah cnadles must be the lighthouse amid the maddening sea of secularism and assimilation that is threatening to engulf and wash away the American Jewish community of our day. Chanukah beckons us to become true Torah Jews, true to the traditions and practices of our forefathers.