Hanukkah and the Blessings of Assimilation

Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, also known as the Festival of Lights is an eight-day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Hanukkah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many people think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of Christmas customs such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. Ironically, Hanukkah has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of the Jewish religion. 

Hanukkah traditionally teaches us that assimilation is BAAADDDD…  but what exactly is assimilation? 

  • Assimilation:   the act or process of absorbing information and experiences 
  • Assimilation:   the state or condition of being absorbed into something 
  • Assimilation:  the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation 

The story of Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great.  Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.  More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar.   

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidim). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.   

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, in tractate Shabbat,page 21b, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle of the oil.  

The take away- message of Hanukkah is to stay true to your tradition; miracles happen; that assimilation is bad; and we are here today because of efforts like the Maccabees. 

I recently read “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” by Gerson D. Cohen.   Cohen was an Associate Professor of History at Columbia and he delivered the commencement address to the Hebrew Teachers College in 1966.   

I love this title.  The Blessing of Assimilation – Good can come from assimilation.  Quoting from Cohen “The first outdated principle that we need to reconsider is that Jewish survival and, above all, Jewish vitality in the past, derived in large measure from a tenacious adherence on the part of our ancestors to all basic eternal traditional forms.”   i.e.,  we survived because we did not change…. 

In the 2nd century, Bar Qappara stated “Owing to four factors were the people of Israel redeemed for the land of Egypt”: 

  1. They did not alter their names 
  2. They did not change their language 
  3. They did not spread malicious gossip  
  4. They were free of sexual license  

Addressing these slightly out of order,  

  1. They did not spread malicious gossip… Trust me, Jews gossip… and we are REALLY good at it…    
  2. They were free of sexual license… We did not sleep around… seems highly unlikely given Biblical stories like Judah and Tamar, or Reuven and Bilhah… 
  3. We did not alter our names?  Thinking back to the evolution is my own families’ names, from Mandelbaum to Manning to Shakdiel, Cohen shows that while Jacobs’ children had Israelite names, their grandchildren were named Aaron, Moses, Hofni and Phinehas, all which had their roots in Egyptian names.  Over time, a pious Israelite might choose names from the broader culture – Ishbaal, Abiyam, Daniel, Zerubbalbel… and later in the Greek period, Jason, Alexander, Hyrcanus and so on.   And today, Jews are named Jamie, Jackie, Steve, Zoe, Chleo, Dita and Lisanne. 
  4. And we didn’t change our language?  Here he means the language of prayer and text study.   Of course we did.  Vibrant communities all over the world study Torah and pray in English, Spanish, French, Ladino, Yiddish, German, and yes, Hebrew. 

The second principle Cohen tackles is that Jewish communities that did not create in Hebrew, did not leave their stamp on Judaism.  The misconception is that the Jewish communities of Alexandria and Cordova, who wrote in Greek and Arabic respectively, failed to contribute anything enduring to Jewish culture; whereas Rabbi Akiva and Hillel the Elder have lived forever because they were recorded in Hebrew. 

 Cohen asks “isn’t a teacher’s first duty, to his students, and not to posterity?”  Tradition gives us at least two ideas to ponder: 

  1. dibber ha-katuv ba-hoveh, divveru hachamim ba-hoveh, (the text speaks in the present reality, the words of the wise sages are in the present).  Good teachers teach in contemporary and relevant terms, in languages people understand.  Most of us would be lost if the first time we opened a Bible or a prayerbook, there was no translation or transliteration. 
  1. Secondly, “dor dor v’dorshav” – one generation goes and another comes … Future generations will take a core idea, reinterpret it and maintain its authenticity through change and thereby through contemporary relevance.  Let’s take a clear example of this – how we connect to and serve God.   In ancient times we served G-d through sacrifice in the Temple(s).  When the 2nd temple was destroyed, we morphed the tool of our connection from sacrifice to prayer.  Over time, many communities prayed 3 times a day with a fairly consistent liturgy, with only subtle differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions.   In the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, with the emergence of the reform, conservative, reconstructionist, humanist and renewal movements in the United States, our prayers and our methodology to connect with the divine continued to evolve.  Today, in California, in my shul, if there is no bar mitzvah, there is no Torah service and my community practices Jewish yoga.  The concept that there are many ways to praise God is not new.  As Psalm 150 illustrates, there are many ways to connect to the divine.  “Halleluya…Praise Him with blasts of the shofar; praise Him with the harp and lyre.  Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with strings and flute.  Praise him with crashing cymbals; praise Him with resounding cymbals.  Let all that breathes praise the Lord.  Halleluya!”  Diversity of expression is imbedded in the Torah. 


For the Jewish community of Alexandria, a certain amount of assimilation was good.  They were unique among Hellenistic ethnic groups in their ability to survive as a living culture, precisely because of its ability to undergo a considerable amount of assimilation.  The translation of the Bible into Greek allowed the Jews to bring their message to the broader world or their own people as well.  It allowed community to stay connected to the core texts, in their own mother tongues, even as their ability to stay connected in Hebrew, evolved away. 

Evolution is inevitable.  Politics, climate, fashion, aliens, we can’t control everything.   Nothing is certain in this world but that it will change.  And whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all influenced by outside factors.  So, if our language, our names and our particular ritual practices differ between time periods and cultures, what holds us together?   

In the Babylonian Talmud, Moses finds himself sitting in the back row of the beit midrash of Rabbi Akiva, hundreds of years in his future, trying to follow a lesson but not understanding a word of the concepts under discussion.  Finally someone asks Rabbi Akiva for the source of his ruling and Akiva answers “In the name of my teacher, Moses” and at that moment, Moses understood that the body of rabbinic decisions had evolved since his time, but the students were engaged in serious study of text and commentary and they could trace the logic of their arguments back through the various permutations and layers of decisions, back to him and to Mt.Sinai.  

What holds the Jewish people together is engagement with Jewish ideas and Jewish texts.  Ethnicity, language, geography, rituals are not enough on their own. Each of these factors alone, not grounded in the ideas that underpin them, eventually become something else.    

What does it mean to be an assimilated Jew?  According to Wikipedia, “Jewish assimilation refers to the cultural assimilation and social integration of Jews in their surrounding culture, a continuous process over centuries.”   

What typifies an assimilated Jew?   Does it mean to wear the clothes of the majority culture?  To speak their language?  Does it mean you look like you walked out of Fiddler on the Roof in 1910?   

What typifies an unassimilated Jew?  Does it mean you are shomer shabbat and follow the dietary laws?  Does it mean that you believe in a God that acts in history?  Do you look like a chasid in a streimel?  Charlton Heston in “The 10 Commandments” or Ari Ben-Canaan in “Exodus”?  All 3 caricatures represent stereotypical Jews of a certain period and historical circumstances; all are totally different from one another; and all would be out of place if replaced one with the other.   

Are there core beliefs that we hold as Jews, regardless of in what millennium we live and the clothes that we wear?  What binds us together as Jews?  And where is the line between unassimilated, assimilated, and lost? 

My answer is to what we have in common is found here, sitting in community, learning Torah.  As we engage in d’vrei Torah (words of Torah), all of us will claim our place in the links of Jewish peoplehood.  I claim my place in Jewish history as a native Californian Jew in the 21st century.  I claim my voice around Jewish issues that pertain to me and my community. I claim my right to interact with text, to interpret, to question and yes, to say it like I see it, through the eyes of a modern Jewish woman, a relatively soon-to-be rabbi, wearing bike shorts and a Sponge Bob cycling jersey :-).


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