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As Hanukkah begins, many American Jews consider how this old story resonates today

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tonight is the start of Hanukkah. The holiday commemorates an ancient military campaign in the Holy Land. And as war unfolds there today, many American Jews are thinking about how this old story resonates in the current moment. Deena Prichep reports.

DEENA PRICHEP: The Hanukkah story is the story of a Greek king, who outlawed Jewish worship and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, and a small group of Jewish rebels who fought back and won.

STUART WEINBLATT: We can't help but look at what happened then and what happens - is happening now in parallel terms, and that is an attempt to basically annihilate and extinguish the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.

PRICHEP: Stuart Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., and the founder of the Rabbinic Zionist Coalition. This year, what he's taking from the Hanukkah story is the inspiration of a small band of Jews who prevailed, even, he says, when the world was stacked against them.

WEINBLATT: Hanukkah is a story with many different dimensions to it. Sometimes it can be one of the Rorschachs of Jewish holidays in certain respects. But ultimately, Hanukkah is the story of a battle against antisemites - the battle for Judaism to survive.

PRICHEP: But battles aren't always black and white. Shaye Cohen teaches Jewish history at Harvard University. He says these rebels, the Maccabees, took a heroic stand for Jewish survival, but the dynasty that descended from them was complicated.

SHAYE COHEN: One way to look at them down the road is that they do become religious zealots, and they do become persecutorial.

PRICHEP: They installed themselves as priests of the Temple in Jerusalem.

S COHEN: At some point, their battle was not for the temple. The battle was for themselves. They seem to be just like everybody else - trying to establish themselves in power, trying to beat up their neighbors.

ALISSA WISE: You know, like, I feel like every year I struggle with this story, right? I don't think that I would be a Maccabee.

PRICHEP: Rabbi Alissa Wise founded the organization Rabbis 4 Ceasefire after the current conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas. She says the Maccabees' use of violence in the Hanukkah story, even for the cause of religious freedom, has always been upsetting. And now...

WISE: I'm too aware of the ways in which this story this year is going to be used to justify what I feel is completely unjustifiable - the gruesome cruelty that the Israeli government is enacting on thousands of innocent Palestinians.

PRICHEP: What Wise is drawing strength from this year is a different part of the Hanukkah story.

WISE: In the Talmud, the rabbis kind of pivoted away from the military story of the Book of Maccabees and instead sought to put center-stage a story of a miracle.

PRICHEP: The menorah Jews will be lighting tonight commemorates this miracle. After the Temple in Jerusalem was reclaimed, an oil lamp was lit to rededicate it as a holy site. The fact that a tiny jar of oil lasted long enough to keep the flame going until more oil could be made is seen as a divine miracle. But Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says just choosing to light the lights - taking action to repair, even when the task seems doomed - is a human miracle.

AYELET COHEN: The fact that the Maccabees knew there was no way the oil remaining would last for enough days and they decided to do it anyway meant that they were choosing hope over despair.

PRICHEP: It's that hope that Cohen says is needed this year. Some rabbis are focusing on their hope that the Jewish state will prevail, no matter the cost - others on the hope for an end to violence now.

A COHEN: The miracle of Hanukkah is that the light expands - that it's possible to see hope increasing, compassion increasing, possibilities for a new future increasing. That's the work of this time.

PRICHEP: And she prays that it can be the miracle of this time as well.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "MEDITATION 22") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deena Prichep
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