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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Darkest Sun, Darkest Moon Holiday Choir Service

Presented by PBUUC Choir with David Chapman, Music Director and Pianist, Rev. Diane Teichert, and John Sebastian, Worship Associate

Darkest Sun, Darkest Moon

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

December 9, 2012


            If it seems especially dark to you at night later this week, that’s because it is. Thursday night will be the night of no moon closest to the Winter Solstice, the longest night. So it will be the darkest longest night of the year.  Some Native American traditions refer to this moon as the Little Long Night Moon.

            In Judaism, which goes by a lunar calendar, this is the time of Hanukkah. It began last night at sundown and continues through next weekend.  Hanukkah comes at the time of the darkest sun and the darkest moon.   It’s a festival of lights at the very darkest time of the year.  In years that Hanukkah coincides with the winter solstice, it is darkest of all. 

            Hanukkah didn’t start as a festival of lights, though. The story of the oil in the holy temple lamp miraculously lasting for eight nights may be old, but it isn’t as old as the first telling of the story of the victorious Maccabean uprising against Syrian-Greek rule, that established Hanukkah as an annual celebration of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, the month in the Jewish calendar that roughly corresponds with December.

            These events are described in I and II Maccabees, ancient biblical books thought to have been written within a century of the events, and are corroborated by other ancient sources.  Yet, I and II Maccabees are not included in the Jewish Bible aka the Tanakh.  Isn’t that surprising? Even though we know that Hanukkah is only a minor Jewish holiday, you would think it would at least be mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures. 

            So, why didn’t the rabbis who assembled their Bible in the first century of the Common Era (for short, CE) not much more than a century after the Maccabean revolt, include these writings?  Well, it seems that the history did not meet with rabbinical approval, for reasons that are interesting, but will take a few minutes to explain.

            As I have come to understand it, the story of the Maccabean revolt is fairly complex.  When we tell it to our children, or sing of it in songs like one of my holiday favorites which the choir will sing after the sermon [Light One Candle by Peter Yarrow], we depict it as a struggle for religious freedom that the Maccabees won  -- a simple conflict between the Jews and the tyrant Greek Syrian King Antiochus IV, who persecuted those who practiced Judaism in their everyday life.  However, there were assimilated Jews on the King’s side, making it part civil war and part a war of protest against religious persecution. Also, the victory had to be won several times over, and when it finally was, the Maccabean kings were cruel, too.  And, in a final irony, the Maccabees invited the Romans in!

            I had not read of these further developments to the simple Hanukkah story until recently.  Perhaps you had not heard of them, either. 

            By the time of the first Maccabean revolt, there had been a long period of Hellenization, meaning assimilation into Greek culture, among the Jews.  It  began at the time of the Greek Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Middle East and Asia in the fourth century BCE (standing for Before the Common Era, a “pluralistically sensitive” way of saying what had been called BC or Before Christ).  Over several centuries, many Jews (especially the more educated and wealthy, and those aspiring to be so) were attracted to the Hellenistic (ie Greek) culture of their rulers.  Religious freedom was allowed throughout the realm during this time, but Jews were rewarded for adopting the culture of the oppressors.             

            The assimilation had eroded the strength of Judaism, as we might expect. When conflict emerged between different factions of assimilated Jews, it played into other imperialist aims of King Antiochus IV. He sacked the Jerusalem Temple on the 25th of Kislev in the year 167 BCE.

            The guerilla movement led by the Maccabees attracted Jews who had resisted Hellenization, some moderate Hellenized Jews whose Jewish identity was newly reinforced by the king’s cruelty, and some pacifist Jews, Hasidim, who gave up on their pacifism for the same reason.   With far fewer resources, this coalition heroically defeated the government’s massive armies and put the Temple back in Jewish hands.  They re-claimed and re-purified the Temple, rededicating it on the anniversary of the King’s attack with an eight day festival.  It was declared in II Maccabees that Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” should be celebrated every year for eight days commencing on the 25th of Kislev.               

            However, it was a short-lived victory.  In 160, the Syrians returned and defeated the Jews, who challenged them again, and were again defeated.  Eighteen years later, the Maccabees finally achieved an enduring victory.

            But, as one modern-day Jewish writer, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his lengthy volume called Jewish Literacy, observes, “Unfortunately, the Maccabees were more noble in opposition than in power.  They had grown so accustomed to fighting that they seemed incapable of working with anyone who disagreed with them about anything…  For example, [a Maccabee] King Alexander Yannai executed eight hundred Pharisee opponents, after first forcing them to witness the murders of their wives and children.  (The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that interpreted the bible liberally). The Maccabees’ terrible moral and religious decline explains why there is almost no mention of them in the Talmud,” the later rabbinical commentary on Jewish Law. 

            The writer goes on to add, “In 63 BCE [100 years after the first Maccabean victory], during a civil war that erupted between two Maccabean brothers, the Romans were invited in to adjudicate and ended up occupying Jerusalem.  The tragedy was now complete.  The original Maccabees had freed the Jews from foreign rule; but their corrupt descendants now caused the return of the Jews to subjugation under another alien [and ultimately more ruthless] power.”  (Joseph Telushkin in Jewish Literacy, pp. 115-118, 131). 

            So, why did the rabbis in 70 CE not include I and II Maccabees in the Jewish Bible, nor barely mention the Maccabees or Hanukkah in the Talmud?   Well, by then, the oppressors were the Romans (invited in as just described), they’d just destroyed the Temple again, and several Jewish uprisings had been decisively put down.   The rabbis thought it ill-advised to encourage more revolts by commemorating the Maccabean victory by force in an earlier era. They preferred a less radical approach--observing the Torah in everyday life, looking to God for help and signs of affirmation, and surviving as a loyal remnant. 

            As Rabbi Arthur Waskow comments, “Only the rabbinical kind of power—the power not of rock but water, fluid and soft from moment to moment and yet irresistible over the long run—had survived.  Only the rabbinical kind of power had protected and preserved Jewish people-hood.” (Seasons of Our Joy, p. 91). 

            Also, consider the long-term results of the Maccabean victory celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah:  first, repression of Jewish minorities and then subjugation of all Jews by the Romans.  It’s enough to make you a pacifist. 

            So, when assembling the Jewish Bible, the rabbis of 70 CE chose not to include these writing about successful military action against a repressive regime. 

            However, somewhere along the way, in the Mishnah portion of the Talmud, enough was said upon which to build a tradition that added a mythic aspect to the Hanukkah story and its ritual celebration, in which one day’s supply of oil in the Temple lamp miraculously lasted for eight days.  The lamp involved is not just any lamp; it is the eternal Temple flame representing the light of God.  So, in re-opening the newly purified Temple, it would not be right to knowingly light the lamp with only one vial of oil, for the light would soon go out.  They knew it would be eight days before new, pure oil could be pressed.  They lit the light anyway.  And so, legend has it, the oil amazingly lasted for eight days, a sign to the Jews of God’s help and affirmation.  With this mythic addition, Hanukkah became not only a celebration of military might in the face of tyranny, but also a celebration of spiritual hope in the face of despair.

             Hanukkah is indeed a paradoxical holiday.  It tells and reveres a story in which the central struggle is a struggle against the assimilation of Jews into the Greek culture of their Syrian overseers and eventual oppressors in the 160’s BCE.  For that reason—because it provides encouragement to later generations suffering under religious tyrants—it survived in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people, despite its total exclusion by the rabbis from the scriptures and, nearly total, from later commentaries.  It survived into even the ghettoes, trains and concentration camps during Nazi tyranny.  But, sadly, the long-term results of the Maccabean victory itself were not worthy of celebration. 

            Perhaps the final paradox is that, in the twentieth century, Hanukkah returned to its anti-assimilationist roots and became the Jewish alternative to the Christmas of the dominant culture, providing Jewish people, families especially, with customs of their own.             

            As Waskow again writes, “The ancient ironies of assimilation and pluralism that had characterized Hanukkah from the beginning acted themselves out again, as—in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the peoples around them—the Jews made Hanukkah more like the holidays of those very peoples.” (p. 94). 

            In a way, I am sorry to tell you all of this.  Simplicity is far more attractive and uplifting than complexity.  Why can’t it just be a simple, happy Hanukkah? 

            Because complexity is real, even today.  Were the Maccabees a courageous people who fought for their religious freedom or were they tyrants?  Did the US liberate Iraq or destroy it?  In our drone attacks, are we killing terrorists or creating new ones? 

            The complex version of the Hanukkah story reveals what is so often the truth:  that the answer is not one or the other, but both. 

            The deeper meaning of the Hanukkah celebration as it is celebrated today is that it transcends the conflict between Maccabee and Rabbi, between survival through guerilla warfare and survival through faith, between the political and the spiritual.  It honors both.  It celebrates the Maccabean victory, but it re-enacts the miracle of the oil burning for eight days, too. 

            And, it asks of us:  to what have we—all of us, not just Jews—assimilated that we ought to fight against?  Are there ways in which we’ve lost our faith? Ways in which we’ve allowed the culture to oppress our true values?   To keep us from expressing our true beliefs? 

            When we despair in feeling we’ve got just one day’s worth of oil left in our inner lamp of wisdom, our inner light of love—one short day’s worth of oil at this dark time of year, the darkest of the sun and darkest of the moon, as well—let us take hope in the Hanukkah story. 

            Our one-day supply of light is, indeed, enough for a lifetime, one day, one candle at a time.  So, let us light one candle!

You can play an MP3 audio file of this sermon by clicking: HERE.

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