Two thousand years ago, according to the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, a tyrannical Hellenistic leader called Antiochus Epiphanes demanded that the Jews offer sacrifices in pagan temples to the Greek gods. Jewish rebels, led by Judah Maccabee, viewed such acts as idolatrous. There was a three-year battle before the Maccabees defeated the Greek armies and once more Jews were able to worship in Jerusalem.
The main feature of the festival is the kindling of the Chanukah lights on the eight successive nights of the holiday. As a result Chanukah became known as the festival of lights, even though the ceremonial act has no more to do with the events commemorated than the Christmas tree has to the birth of Christ. Lights have always been an important part of Jewish ritual. Since their earliest history Jews have identified light with holiness and the Divine Presence and have ritualised its use in the celebration of major holidays. The kindling of lights initiates the Sabbath and major Jewish festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur; every synagogue has a ner tamid (everlasting light); 24-hour candles are burned for the first seven days after the death of a family member and on the anniversary of his or her death.
When the ancient rabbis asked, "what is Chanukah?", their answer was concerned less with history than with legend. The story is told that when the Temple was re- dedicated (the word Chanukah means "re-dedication") there was only sufficient oil for the kindling of the menorah for one day. But, by a miracle, it lasted for eight days until fresh uncontaminated oil could be produced. Although the story became the explanation for the festival it is probable that it was actually created to give a Jewish explanation for a practice already entrenched.
The legend indicates that the rabbis focused on the spiritual and not on the political; on the miracle of the oil and not on the military successes of the Maccabees. Unlike modern Zionists, who see in the celebration of the military prowess and political achievement of the Macabees a reflection of their own agenda, the rabbis chose to ignore the historical events which lay behind the festival.
So, how should we view Chanukah today? The answer lies in the clash between the particular and the universal; the rights of a minority and the demands of a majority. When Antiochus issued his repressive edicts the Jews rebelled and, in so doing, served notice on him, and all tyrants, that there are certain unalienable rights which a people will defend, whatever the cost. Foremost amongst these is its right to maintain its own religious traditions. The Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion". Unknowingly, the Maccabees helped establish this principle and the Festival of Lights might be aptly renamed the Festival of Rights.
Antiochus Epiphanes viewed Hellenism as the universal human culture which was not only open to all but required all to embrace it - at the expense of their own identity. The Maccabees rejected the demand to assimilate and to give up their identity as Jews. The Maccabean victory saved particularist Judaism and sent a signal of defiance to those universalist forces who claim the right to abolish distinctions in the name of "progress".
Such universalist forces tend to become oppressive and try to obliterate smaller cultures. As a result, Jewish resistance to universal homogenisation has been a blessing for humanity and a continuing source of encouragement for religious pluralists of all types, not just Jews. History is littered with examples of universalist cultures which have demanded that minorities disappear whether into the abysses of secularism, nationalism or into other ideologies and theologies.
The festival of Chanukah reminds us all that a universalism which denies the rights of the particular will eventually oppress people in the name of one humanity. The arrogant universalism of the Hellenism demanded that Jews give up their distinctive religious ways for the greater "good". The Maccabees warned against the simplistic but false notion that only if we are all citizens of one faith will there truly be one humanity. By defeating Antiochus and by surviving against the odds since then, Jews continue to oppose whatever philosophy, religion or economic system claims the right to abolish all distinctions.
There is a lesson for all of us here. Across the globe minorities today have been informed that there is no future for them. But it is all too easy to dress up the values of a dominant culture and declare them to be universal. The leaders of the Western world should bear this in mind as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that Universal Declaration. It is not that there are no universal truths; only that we should demonstrate humility rather than prejudice in our attempt to discern them.
Edward Kessler is Director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations at CambridgeReuse content