This is a time when a lot of people are worried about identity theft. The radio and television are full of ads about companies that can detect or prevent identity theft. Shredder manufacturers have noted significant increases in sales because people want to shred bills and anything with addresses or other information that can be used to open credit card accounts or access current accounts. Companies have cute songs about how if the singer had a watch on his credit report he wouldn’t be in a less than favorable job or living arrangement. Nobody wants their identity stolen.
This is really not a new problem. The Jewish people faced identity theft about 2,200 years ago. This theft, though, was not of individual identity but of their identity as God’s chosen people. The Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to convince the Jewish people to give up their distinctiveness. Many Jews had been choosing to adopt Greek (Hellenist) ways. Greek fashion was all the rage. Some Jewish men even surgically reversed their circumcisions in order to compete naked in Greek sports without calling attention to themselves. This was the period in which the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (which Rabbi Saul—the apostle Paul—used extensively), was made. Even use of Hebrew and Aramaic in public functions and documents was on the decline. There was a real danger, in the minds of some, of Judaism dying out completely. Then Antiochus made a mistake. It was the equivalent of someone opening a checking account in the name of a major politician. He set up images in the Temple in Jerusalem, and is said to have even sacrificed a pig on the altar. This was the final straw. This was the line in the sand beyond which some could not cross. As a result a small but militarily savvy army began a sophisticated guerrilla campaign which eventually drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem.
On 25 Kislev, in the winter of what is now called in the Gregorian calendar 165 BC, the victorious Jews rededicated the Temple. Jewish law and tradition was saved. Jewish identity was restored. From that time forward, Hanukkah, the feast commemorating this event, has become perhaps the most observed of the Jewish holidays.
Why is Hanukkah so significant? Throughout time conquering peoples have always tried to assimilate the conquered. The Inquisition included an attempt to assimilate the Jews. Westward expansion in North America involved attempts to assimilate native Americans into the American culture. American humanists attempt to assimilate American Christianity. And so it goes. The dominant group wants to steal the identity of the smaller group. The smaller group always fights this identity theft. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the David against Goliath, the small against the giant. Hanukkah tells the Jewish people that it is possible to retain a Jewish identity, even in the ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi Europe.
Perhaps Hanukkah could as well be celebrated by more than just the Jewish people. In a time when religious identity is under attack on many fronts, perhaps Hanukkah gives a message of hope to all religions. One does not light a Hanukkah candle and hide it behind a blackout curtain. It belongs in the window. The candles tell all who pass by that here lives a person who will not have his identity stolen. Here lives an individual who will fight against all odds to retain his identity in God, whatever that identity might be.
Hanukkah begins December 22 in 2008.