Hanukkah and Power: #BlackLivesMatter

Like with much of our religious traditions and sacred stories (or really anything for that matter) what we learn as kids is revealed to be much more complicated as adults.

Take the Hanukkah story for example. The general narrative is of the Maccabees, a Jewish family which lead a revolt against the oppressive tactics of the ruling Greek empire which suppressed Jewish practice and expression.. The revolt was successful at driving out the Greeks, and led to the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by idolatry. Lighting the sacred lamp (menorah), it was discovered that there was only enough consecrated oil to last one day. It lasted for 8, however, a miraculous event that we mark.

As we reflect on this story, it gets complicated. For example, the 8 days of Hanukkah are also associated with a delayed celebration of Sukkot. Additionally, the story of the oil appears to be a later addition of the rabbis of the Talmud, and is absent in the historical records of the Book of Maccabees.

The themes of lighting up the darkness, and the pursuit of the right to individual and communal religious expression, survive any scrutiny of the story–these are universal themes which over Hanukkah are expressed through the Maccabee story, themes which are worthy of celebration.

One other complicating factor draws our attention this year. This complicating factor is one we don’t usually talk about, because it is what happens next, after the events we mark on Hanukkah. For after the rededication of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom, the ruling Hasmoneans (the family of the Maccabees) established a regime of their own, using violence to solidify their rule.

(This also has echoes of the earlier violence, which, though directed at the Greek regime, also included elements of civil war, as the Jewish population was divided in its support for the ruling parties.)

Regimes using violence and oppressive tactics to exercise authority and power, these issues persist to this day. Mindful of the Hanukkah story and its excesses, our job is to be mindful of this tendency towards institutionalized oppression and work to oppose it.

Our nation recently has been confronted, once again, with these issues. Cases of African-Americans being brutalized and killed by the police have transcended their local impact in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland to break open a larger conversation of institutionalized racism and its dangers, especially when that institution is the police.

art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org
art by Zoe Cohen from chanukahaction.org

We carry a legacy of racial discrimination in this country which continues to this day. And even though racial bias increasingly lacks a legal imprimatur, other discrete forms of bias persist in ways both overt and covert. When this is combined with an institution given authority and the public trust (not to mention weapons) it is imperative that we seek it out and identify it, else we stand no chance of overcoming it.

One way to have the conversation about covert forms of biases is to examine and recognize white privilege, the ways our society favors the white experience and gives a distinct advantage to those with white skin. This concept should not be foreign to us, for we as Jews understand that it is like to be at the receiving end of (culturally) Christian privilege especially at this time of year, when we do not see our experience and culture reflected in the dominant culture. (And when we do, it sometimes feels like tokenism.)

So we Jews need to be part of the conversation. Both because of our own historical experience in this country, but also because of our sacred teachings. We are taught that we are created b’tzelem Elohim–each in the image of God. This means that each person is worthy and deserving of respect. This means that all lives matter. This means that Black lives matter.

And Jewish groups are recognizing this. Jewish groups, along with other faith communities, are at the forefront of the conversation. This is only fitting, as it is not just a policy conversation, it is a moral conversation. And as we turn our attention to the celebration of Hanukkah, it is a fitting time to focus our spiritual energy on this important conversation. See Chanukah Action to End Police Violence or vsGoliath, for example, for information and resources to add this kavannah (intention) to your own observance of Hanukkah as I am adding it to mine.

The story of Hanukkah teaches of the promise and peril of institutional power. The peril comes when a good and helpful and important institution like the police gets tainted with racism and abuse of power. The promise comes, however, in our ability to over come it and shine a light on this particular darkness.

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