Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Enjoying the Light

Once again, thanks to my beloved Jonathan, who shares with me his whole second set of holidays in addition to my own, I’m sitting here watching the candles burn down on the first night of Hanukkah. What a funny holiday it is in the Jewish calendar.

Not commanded anywhere in the Torah, or in the Hebrew Bible at all, it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration in the second century before the Common Era, as narrated in the Books of Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees survive in the Greek version of the Bible known as the Septuagint and count as Scripture for Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but neither for Protestants nor for Jews. Rabbinic tradition, rather than even this quasi-biblical source, attests the miracle by which a supply of oil sufficient for only one day kept the lamp of the Temple burning for eight, until a fresh supply could be found.

What’s more than a little unsettling, these sources (especially 1 Maccabees) embody a tendentious politics of cultural purity: modern scholarship mostly argues (more in line with the author of 2 Maccabees) that at stake was not so much a foreign oppression of Jewish faith as a civil war between traditionalists in the countryside and more liberal, multiculturally oriented Jews in Jerusalem. It’s as though Southern Baptists from Northern Alabama were to pick a fight with liberal Episcopalians, win a bloody war against them, and then write what became the definitive history of the conflict.

But set aside all that’s suspect about how Hanukkah came to be, and consider what it is, or can be. Like the Solstice three weeks from now, it’s about light in the darkness. It’s about hope when hope seems to be extinguished. Like Advent, it’s about waiting for deliverance beyond our power to deliver ourselves. For that matter, like Diwali in the Hindu calendar, now nearly four weeks past, it’s about the victory of good over evil.

And yet, it’s not a serious holiday. It’s for kids, and it only gets hyped in North America because it offers a culturally specific alternative to Christmas. It’s about playing with spinning tops, and chocolate coins, and eating potato pancakes and singing sometimes silly, not always particularly edifying songs. Unlike the core holidays of the Jewish year, there’s no prohibition against work on the first days of the eight-day celebration.

But at the heart of Hanukkah–and this is what I love–is the injunction to enjoy its light. The candles of the Hanukkah menorah are supposed to be gratuitous. You’re to appreciate them, not use them for practical purposes. They’re there as a kind of holy play, an occasion to invite their beauty into one’s soul, for as long as it takes them to burn down completely; an invitation to lose oneself in a sense of security that comes from beyond ourselves, in the presence of which it’s safe to dwell.

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