Zachary Braiterman: Hanukkah moves Jewish people today with the universal civic ideals of freedom, identity and citizenship, SU professor says

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Zachary Braiterman: Hanukkah moves Jewish people today with the universal civic ideals of freedom, identity and citizenship, SU professor says

Source: Syracuse Post Standard, 12-20-11

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David Lassman / The Post-Standard Syracuse University associate professor Zachary Braiterman, a member of the Religion Department, poses at the Hall of Languages.

Zachary Braiterman is an associate professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Religion. His research interests are in the areas of modern Jewish thought and culture; medieval Jewish philosophy; classical Jewish sources and art history. Hanukkah begins at sunset today and The Post-Standard asked him to write about the history and meaning of the holiday and how it plays out today.

Funny things have happened to the holiday of Hannukah.

With no basis in Hebrew scripture, Hanukah was once a minor festival that became a big deal in America. It is an eight day festival celebrated by the lighting of candles of a special menorah or candelabrum, holiday parties at home and in the synagogue, the eating of fried potato pancakes with sour cream or apple sauce, and a game played with the famous spinning dreidel top. From modern Israel comes the custom of eating sugary, jelly doughnuts. In America, lavish gifts are given to assuage Jewish children for Christmas.

The basic storyline chronicles ancient Judean politics. Soon after the death of Alexander the Great, ancient Judea was ruled by a Greek imperial state based in modern day Syria. According to the story, the emperor Antiochos turned the Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine and proscribed the practice of Judaism. Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the Jews rebelled against Greek rule, retook the Temple, and rededicated it to the service of God.

In the twentieth century, historians began to shed new light on these events. Historians no longer view the Maccabean revolt as simply a struggle between Jewish monotheism versus Greek paganism. In this newer version, the Syrian Greeks exploited a conflict within ancient Jewish society between those Jews who sought to resist Greek culture versus those Jews who sought to assimilate or accommodate it. With the Temple service now secure thanks to the revolt, the successors to the Maccabees became active promoters of the very Greek culture against which the Maccabees rebelled.

In this historical light, Hanukah actually celebrates the conclusion of a civil war in ancient Judea. Indeed, civil strife fueled by palace and Temple politics marked the entire period following liberation from Greek rule. But no one today really remembers any of this, at least not practically….READ MORE

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