Hanukkah: Purity, love, and the clash of cultures




From The Feast of Lights by Emma Lazarus

Kindle the taper like the steadfast star
Ablaze on evening's forehead o'er the earth,
And add each night a lustre till afar
An eightfold splendor shine above thy hearth.

Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn;
Chant psalms of victory till the heart takes fire,
The Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain...

From The Barricades, by Denise Levertov

If now I cannot see you, 
or be sure you ever stirred beyond the walls of dream,
rising, unbroken battlements, to a sky heavy with constellations of desire,
it is because those barricades are grown too tall to scale, 
too dense to penetrate,
hiding the landscape of your distant life in which you move, 
as birds in evening air far beyond sight trouble the darkening sea
with the low piping of their discontent.

Message, by Andy Pakula

When I was growing up in a rather secular Jewish family, the holiday that begin this evening - Hanukkah - was a special time. It was special not for any religious reason. It was special because it was a time to get presents - eight small presents - one each night. 

Hanukkah was never a big holiday in the Jewish tradition. It only became one when Jews lived side-by-side with Christians and needed some balance with Christians. Of course, in my family we got gifts for both Hanukkah and Christmas, which probably explains why I ended up Unitarian - you get to celebrate every holiday you want.

The story of Hanukkah dates to the second century BCE when Judea was occupied by the Syrian empire. The emperor Antiochus Epiphanes - the bad guy of this story - came to power in 175 BCE. Under his rule, the Syrians tried to destroy the traditional religion of the Jews. Although his predecessors were tolerant of the religions of the people they occupied, Antiochus Epiphanes turned to oppression.  The holy temple in Jerusalem was looted and defiled. The purity of this place essential for the religious life of the people was contaminated. 
A statue of Zeus was erected in the temple and pigs – unclean animals under Jewish law – were slaughtered on the sacred altar.   Jews were massacred and the practice of Judaism was effectively outlawed.  But, as so often happens, the oppression designed to suppress the Jews had the opposite effect – it provoked a revolt led by the Maccabees.  

To make a long story short, the Maccabees defeated the occupiers and the temple was recaptured. And when the Jews restored the temple they realised that there was only enough ritually pure lamp oil to keep the temple lamp burning for one day - but it would take 8 days to prepare more.

And here’s the miracle part - the lamp oil burned for eight days instead of just one. 
Now - it has always seemed to me that this is a very small kind of miracle - sort of like milk lasting a few days past its best-by date or finding that you do actually have enough flour for the cake when it didn’t look like it at first. 

These people - people who had survived war and oppression - people who were tired and mourning and still fearful of the likely return of the Syrians in greater numbers… These were people who needed a miracle - who needed to be reminded of the wonders of the world - of the goodness that surrounded them. And there it was - a tiny miracle. 

Maybe a miracle that they made themselves in the dark of night when someone snuck in a bit of extra oil they had in a secret stash. Sometimes we just need a miracle.

So, we’re left with a Hanukkah story about oppression, about religious freedom, about a military revolt, about victory and then about a strange miracle that is marked publicly today as an occasional balance to Christmas trees with electric menorahs in the streets.

Of course, it’s complicated that it’s a story that glorifies military solutions. It’s actually even more complicated than that. Scholars now think that the story really begins with a civil war between traditional Jews represented by the Maccabees on the one hand, and Jews that had been influenced by Greek culture on the other - Hellenized Jews. . The Syrians then intervened against the Maccabees. So, for some, the Syrians made a welcome intervention against religious purists. For others, it was oppression.

In many ways, then, the Hanukkah story is about purity - the sense that things are clean, safe, free from contamination of all kinds. 

The name Hanukkah comes from the word ‘chanak’, meaning dedication or consecration.  The miracle of the lights is fun and it fits well into this season where we long for light, but the restoration of the temple to holiness is absolutely central to the story. The desecration of the Jerusalem temple was a an act of contamination. It was poison and filth poured into the heart of Jewish life. Everything that the people held holy and life-sustaining was under threat.
The Maccabees - the heroes of the story - were on the side of purity. They drove off the occupying forces, defeated their Hellenized brethren, liberated the Jerusalem temple and allowed it to be restored to it previous priestly purity. Hanukkah marks this restoration and rededication of the temple.  

Human beings have a tendency to want purity. What is the opposite? I don’t think you will be able to find a single positive antonym for purity: contamination, adulteration, corruption, dirt, filth, pollution, stain, uncleanness, and foreign matter.

Not only are these words negative, they border on disgusting. The human reaction to impurity - the threat of contamination - is disgust. Just think about the hair you found in your food one day. Most people will react with disgust in that circumstance even if the same hair by itself would otherwise be of no concern.


Retailers advertise how pure their products are. Ivory soap is famously 99 and 44/100ths percent pure. And that sounds good. But why? I actually want some moisturiser in my soap - maybe a bit of fragrance - something to prevent it from getting all mushy in the shower. Pure soap is not great soap, but the manufacturers of Ivory knew that purity sold then and it sells now.

Purity for the Maccabees was not only about the holy temple, it was about the purity of their religion and their culture. They didn’t want to see it change to take on elements of Greek thought and culture. They were prepared to fight and kill in the interest of that purity.
This now becomes a different kind of story. Not simply a clear-cut legend of freedom-fighters overcoming oppression, we also have a story about military struggle and a civil war about maintaining religious purity. The Maccabees, if recent scholarship is indeed right, were initially fighting other Jews to preserve the purity of 2nd Century BCE Judaism against contamination with Greek ideas and culture.

The notions of purity and impurity and the disgust that comes with exposure to impurity are all very human responses and they are with us still today. They play out not only in what we buy and what we eat, but in our societies and on the world stage.

Most recently, our headlines have been filled with conflict and violence - ISIS, Boko Haram and other groups that use terrorism as a strategy are seen as the main villains. I don’t mean to draw unfair parallels or equate the barbaric cruelty of these groups with any other group that came before. It is, however, useful and important to point out that in for Islamist fundamentalists - just as for many other groups before them including the Maccabees - the goal of the violence has a strong component of preserving purity.

ISIS are intent on ending western influence and western hegemony. And they are equally intent on killing those who follow a form of Islam that they see as impure - a form that has been contaminated by the influences from secular society and other religions.
And the responses amongst some Britons and other western nations to welcoming refugees also has to do with purity - with the notion of a pure British society. 

Purity has long been a motivator of division and conflict and cruelty. Fear of foreigners has always included an element of purity thinking. Every genocide has used disgust to motivate hatred against a group of people seen as impure - as contaminating the dominant group culture.
Many countries have had and some still have laws forbidding interracial marriages. The French protect the purity of their language as do many other nations. 

The fears may appear irrational or archaic to us here, but the fears are very real: The fear of an impure bloodline, the fear of a contaminated culture, the fear of life-sustaining faith being undermined, the fear of one’s own pure essence being diluted and lost.

The desire for purity and the disgust for its opposite is built in to human psychology. At the most basic level, clean food is safe food. We feel disgust at physical contamination of our bodies and the spaces in which we live.

And this basic psychology has broader effects than physical purity. The same response can come into play when we encounter people who appear different from us, ways of intimacy that are different from our own, and even ways of thinking that appear foreign. Religious purity is distantly related to personal physical purity, and some of the heat and fury in protecting religious purity comes from the same basic responses.

There was a time when cultural and religious purity were not threatened with contamination so often or so rapidly.

In today’s world, mixing happens faster and more suddenly. Television broadcasts Western ways and values into cultures where they are unwelcome and the change threatens the notion of religious purity. 

It is worth remembering this when we find the fury of others inexplicable. It is worth remembering this even when we wonder at the intensity of our own reactions to people who are different and to changes in what we have come to regard as the right and pure ways to think and act.

The challenge of purity comes even closer to our lives than this. 

Purity and love are at odds. Have you ever fallen in love with someone and set up house together? Remember fighting about cleanliness and tidiness? Purity. Remember being bothered by someone their personal habits? Purity.

A battleground of purity vs. love?

A battleground of purity vs. love?

Purity is clean and tidy. It means your ideas being unchallenged, your space being your own, your day to day life being determined by your own choices. To protect purity, we need very high and strong boundaries to keep the other out. 

And love… People are messy. People don’t always think the way we do. They often have different habits and ways of living from our own. Loving people means lowering the boundaries we build against impurity. 

Love changes us. We may look back and notice it was for the better, but it always changes us. And all those negative words about the opposite of purity come into play as we feel our high and strong boundaries being challenged.

We each have to choose between purity and love in our own lives and recognise with compassion that the choice is difficult for others too.

This Hanukkah - as we light candles or see them around us - let us remember that there is a choice to be made - and that we choose love.

Happy Hanukkah.