From War to Light: The Hanukkah Story

By Rabbi Renée Bauer, ICWJ Director

HanukkahMenorajpgThis year’s celebration of Hanukkah began at sundown on December 6, with the lighting of the first candle. Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday of lights that lasts 8 days. Click to learn more about the Hanukkah story. ICWJ has a tradition of offering reflections by local clergy on worker justice during religious holidays, and this year’s Hanukkah reflection is written by ICWJ’s director Rabbi Renée Bauer.

The stories we tell to frame situations have significant effects. Framing Syrian refugees as terrorists leads to restrictive and inhumane immigration policies. Narratives depicting Black men as dangerous criminals lead to a disturbing increase in arrest, conviction, and police shootings of Black men and boys. The national story that economic success results from hard work and perseverance ignores the systemic barriers inhibiting minimum wage workers from pulling themselves out of poverty. Stories shape our opinions, our world view, and ultimately our public policy.

The ancient rabbis of my tradition knew this. They transformed the Hanukkah story from one focused on war to one focused on Divine miracles of light. The story of Hanukkah is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but is in the First and Second Book of Maccabees, which are not part of the Jewish canon (The books of First and Second Maccabees are still accessible today only because they were incorporated into Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bible). This story describes a small Jewish army’s, the Maccabees’, military victory over Greek armies who were desecrating, and intent on destroying, the ancient holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The rabbis of the first centuries CE did not want to continue this holiday that celebrated military victory. They could not get rid of the popular holiday altogether, so they transformed the holiday story (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b). They invented the story of a curse of oil that was found in the desecrated temple. There was only enough oil to create light for one day but miraculously it lasted for 8 days. Thus, Jews now celebrate Hanukkah with the lighting of candles for eight days. Ask a Jewish child the story of Hanukkah and they will tell you about the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. This is the story now. The rewriting and radical transformation of the holiday has mostly been forgotten.

As the director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, I am empowered by the rabbinic transformation of the holiday of Hanukkah. It is a dark time for workers in Wisconsin with narratives that devalue and sometimes even villainize workers coming regularly from the state legislature. We have power to change these narratives and to move our state forward.  We can see the power of changing the conversation when we look at the issue of raising the minimum wage. Three years ago the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage seemed like an unrealistic pipe dream. But workers and allies, like ICWJ, have continually shared stories, spoken out in favor of higher wages, and not allowed the dominant narrative to drown out our calls for justice. The worker movement has changed the national conversation. The question of a higher minimum wage is central in the presidential debates, and 29 states across the country have raised their minimum wage.

As the Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah, may the story’s transformation remind us that we have the power to create change in our day and in our society.

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