the spiritual depth of Hanukkah
Orlando Sentinel December 7, 2004 P. E1-4
At the front of the synagogue, a bearded rabbi closes his eyes
and gently rocks back and forth in his chair, cradling his guitar
as he weaves a hypnotic spell of delicate songs, melodies and
spiritual meditations on the meaning of Hanukkah.
first pew of the dimly lit sanctuary, a woman undulates her
hands and arms in the air, keeping rhythm with the music, movements
that would be familiar to any Pentecostal Christian. This
is a very different way of celebrating the Jewish Festival of
Lights, which began Tuesday at sundown and lasts for eight days.
two-hour presentation, which is undisturbed by applause until
it ends, another woman approaches Rabbi David Zeller and thanks
him for transporting her to a different level of understanding.
Saturday evening's event was the first of a two-day conference
at Orlando's Congregation of Liberal Judaism, "Discovering
and Igniting Our Hidden Soul: The Spiritual Depth of Hanukkah."
On Sunday, more than 50 people from Central Florida's Jewish
community sang and meditated with Zeller.
In a soothing,
almost ethereal voice, the rabbi says Hanukkah is "one
of the most mystical of holidays, because it comes out of the
oral tradition," rather than from the Hebrew Bible. "The
deepest secrets are contained in this holiday. It carries a
tremendous power," says Zeller, founder of the Shevet Center
for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation in Jerusalem.
Stone, a Maitland writer and storyteller, says he and others
helped organize the weekend because they sensed "a hunger
here for something more." Stone's
wife, Elizabeth Cohen, agrees. "Some
of us need to take the outer stories of our holidays and enliven
them spiritually, so it's not just a historical celebration,"
says Cohen, another organizer of Zeller's visit. Despite
efforts like this to focus on Hanukkah's spiritual aspects,
Stone and Cohen may be facing an uphill battle. It is much easier,
especially for parents and children, to observe the holiday
as they have for years, as an occasion for celebrating a long-ago
military victory, and for gift-giving. An
element of Hanukkah's true history of civil war between Jews
may make the search for spirituality even more difficult.
leaders frequently (and, usually, fruitlessly) point out that
Hanukkah is artificially elevated by the calendar and commercialism.
Because it's not biblical, Hanukkah did not become prominent
on the Jewish calendar until several hundred years ago in Europe,
where the coincidence with Christmas was highlighted by the
use of candles in both holidays.
is only part of the problem. For rabbis, another troubling aspect
of the holiday is that it celebrates a military victory as much
as a spiritual one. More than 2,200 years ago, religious Jews
who became known as the Maccabees rebelled again their Syrian-Greek
occupiers, whose king was determined to impose paganism on his
subjects. Today, the story is irresistible to Jews and non-Jews
fresh off his success with The Passion of the Christ, told the
Jerusalem Post newspaper last March that the Book of Maccabees
fired his imagination, and that the father and sons who led
the revolt might be the subject of his next biblical epic. The
Maccabees "stood up, and they made war," he said.
"They stuck by their guns and they came out winning. It's
like a western." However,
the story is not that simple which is one reason the biblical
account of the struggle is not included in Hebrew scripture.
What is not emphasized in the songs and stories about Hanukkah
is that the successful uprising was also a civil war among Jews,
between observant rebels and those who wanted to assimilate
rabbis purposely decided to suppress the story," says Rachamim
Berman HaLevi. "It was a terrible period of sectarian
Jewish strife and violence." HaLevi was part of a recent
presentation at the University of Central Florida, sponsored
by the International Society for Sephardic Progress.
The evening included the showing of a new documentary, Emperors
and Rebels: The True Story of Hanukkah, which features yet another
troubling aspect of the Hanukkah story: The Maccabees founded
a ruling dynasty that ended in corruption and collaboration
with the rising Roman Empire a century later.
instead of focusing on the military aspect of the holiday and
its political ramifications, rabbis throughout the centuries
have emphasized a much smaller part of the story. According
to tradition, when the Maccabees entered Jerusalem, they found
the temple had been defiled. It was cleansed and rededicated,
but there was not enough holy oil to keep the Everlasting Light
burning until new oil could be pressed. But one day's supply
lasted for eight days, which was considered a miracle, giving
Hanukkah the name, Festival of Lights.
of the holiday is foremost on the minds of those at the Congregation
of Liberal Judaism. "Hanukkah
is really about light," says Joy Bochner, one of the Zeller
event's organizers. "And it's about a time of rededication
and the idea of bringing light out of darkness in a time of
year that is darker. A time of celebrating light. That's what
spirituality is about for a lot of people."
Bochner says, should be "a time of renewal_not just a time
to get run down buying presents and cooking, things you do during
the holiday season." But
she admits that emphasizing spiritual renewal can be daunting
in Western countries that celebrate Christmas as a national
parents in North America sometimes complain that their children's
holiday is vastly overshadowed by Christmas. Mixed-faith
couples face what has come to be known as the "December
dilemma," deciding which holiday to celebrate and how.
"worst nightmare" category, this year brings "Chrismukkah"
greeting cards, based on "a blend of favorite traditions
from both Hanukkah and Christmas," according to their creators,
an interfaith couple named Ron and Michelle Gompertz. Not
surprisingly, the idea hits a nerve with some rabbis. "I
find these cards offensive to both Christians and Jews,"
says Rabbi Daniel Wolpe, of the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation.
should be offensive to Christians because it puts a minor Jewish
holiday on the same par" with one of their holiest holidays,
he says. "It should be offensive to Jews because the entire
story of Hanukkah is the battle against assimilation, and these
cards embrace it. These cards show a clear ignorance of the
history, importance, and meaning of both holidays."
the Hanukkah observation at the Congregation of Liberal Judaism
takes the celebration to a higher plane. "This
is a way of learning more about the true meaning of Hanukkah,"
she says, "and celebrating that meaning, celebrating personal