Rabbi Avi Finegold’s hot take for Hanukkah: Maccabees, materialism and the middle path

Avi Finegold is the founder of the Jewish Living Lab in Montreal and the co-host of The CJN’s weekly current affairs podcast Bonjour Chai.

I’m far from the first person to point out that there’s no history or meaning to attach to Hanukkah gifts. They’re clearly an idea borrowed from Christmas, and there are dozens of articles to read if you want to go down that rabbit hole.

(Indeed, the very idea of Christians giving Christmas presents is also likely tenuous at best—I just figure it’s better to leave Christianity to the Christians.)

But if you decide to be the Hanukkah Grinch (Chrinch? or maybe Grinch but with a nice Hebrew-style …chhhhh at the end?) and not give anything at all, what do you do instead? One possibility is to examine the values that these eight nights represent and how we can create activities that reflect those values.

So, if Hanukkah is about courage, then maybe find a new activity that your family might not otherwise do, or take on an ambitious recipe or project to complete.

Or, if you think that the lights in our windows represent the Jews being a light to the nations, then maybe make this light more than symbolic. Head into the street and find an opportunity to give back to those that are less fortunate. Don’t just light up your neighbourhood from the comfort of your home. Go and bring food and supplies to a homeless shelter and light up the lives of others.

That’s all well and good and I hope that even if you are a gift-giving family, you do this, too. I’d just like to go one step further and reflect on a lesser-known aspect of the original story:

Much of the popular understanding of Hanukkah centres around the Hellenization of the Jews in the second century BCE and the resistance that was mounted against this by the Maccabees. And while it’s well documented, one critical aspect of this resistance isn’t much discussed—but I think it’s at the heart of what this holiday means.

Antiochus, the Seleucid Greek King who was leading the military campaign against the Jews, clearly understood the dictum to know your enemy (indeed Sun Tzu’s The Art of War predates this time period by a good few centuries, but this too is a matter for another time). One of his main strategies was to attack on when Jews wouldn’t fight because they didn’t want to violate Shabbat restrictions. As one would imagine, this was disastrous, and Mattathias is recorded in the Book of the Maccabees as endorsing the position of allowing one to fight on the Sabbath in order to preserve a life.

While this position was the one taken up by the Pharisees and eventually the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, this was certainly not the prevailing opinion at the time. Yet it allowed the Jews to prevail over the Greeks and recapture and rededicate the Temple. We celebrate this victory every year.

Assimilation has clearly been on our minds since then, and the options have only gotten more complex.

Are gifts on Hanukkah a capitulation to those forces? What about the Mensch on the Bench? Should one shut out every possible influence that society presents as a bulwark against assimilation? Perhaps we need to consider the original story to help us move forward.

There were clearly Jews who assimilated completely and who knows what happened to them in the long run. There were also Jews who saw that and went in the opposite direction and refused to violate their laws and died as a result.

Maccabees saw a different path. They lived a faith that was worth preserving and worth living for, but to do that they had to be flexible and take an unpopular opinion, and in a way be influenced by the military tactics of Antiochus and the Hellenists.

Perhaps the message of Hanukkah, then, is to examine our place in greater society and ask ourselves what parts are we rejecting for good reason (the Maccabees were still fiercely committed to Jewish practice, after all), what we are blindly rejecting even though it might be killing us… and what the middle path might be.

The best part of living in our age is that we all get to make our own choices about what path to take. And for some, personal rewards to remind ourselves that this is a joyous time might not be such a terrible thing.

And yet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the story doesn’t really end there. The Hasmonean dynasty ended up corrupt and in league with Rome, leading directly to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the very Temple that was rededicated two centuries earlier.

I don’t give Hanukkah gifts—don’t worry, my wife does, so the kids are happy—but do I think that this act is going to save the Jews? No. Will presents prevent intermarriage? Who knows? Everyone’s middle path is different and it might take 200 more years to know what was the right thing to do.

In the meantime, I’m going to work some magic in the kitchen, producing latkes that are shatteringly crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside.

(Pro tip: only use the egg yolks—leave the whites for making whiskey sours.)

HEAR what else Avi Finegold has to say every week on Bonjour Chai