Long before Judaism and Christianity entered the world, ancient peoples celebrated the waning of the sun as winter deepened by creating celebrations of light and ceremonies to encourage the sun to return. Jews and Christians took this spirit of hopefulness and applied it to social, economic, and political contexts.
Chanukah originated to celebrate the victory of a small group of people in Judea who rose up to overthrow the power of the Seleucid empire (one of the remnants of Alexander the Great’s Greek empire).
Christmas originated to celebrate the vision of a small infant born in the most modest and powerless of circumstances—an infant who was to bring tidings of peace and the triumph of the powerless, who were suffering under the rule of the arrogant Roman empire that dominated Judea at that time.
Sadly for humanity, the revolutionary visions behind these two holidays did not translate into a lasting victory over suffering and domination: the Hasmonean dynasty that took root in Judea after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids became yet another corrupt ruling force, and those who inherited the Christian message twisted it to justify Western imperialism, the oppression of Jews, and the burning alive of women deemed too powerful and outspoken (alleged “witches”).
All revolutionary visions—not just religious ones—are vulnerable to this sort of subversion and co-optation. Within the last century, secular communist, socialist, and democratic worldviews have similarly been twisted to advance secular totalitarian regimes and global capitalism, which have brought misery to billions of people worldwide, primarily in the Global South but also within “advanced industrial societies.” And America’s promise to take in the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (inscribed on the Statue of Liberty) has been broken and distorted from the beginning. The current push to send tens of thousands of child refugees back to countries where their lives are endangered is only the latest example of this country’s growing hostility to immigrants.
The truth is that any set of ideas rooted in any spiritual, religious, or secular culture can be twisted around to manifest ugliness and hurtfulness, in direct contradiction to the culture’s highest values.
The horrendous immorality of the Israeli assault on Gaza this past summer—the outgrowth of forty-seven years of oppressive Occupation by the Israeli state—has led many Jews into feelings of despair. Listening to twisted arguments justifying the ongoing Occupation and the wanton killings of innocent Palestinians deepens this despair. How could a people whose Talmud taught that “a Jew lacking compassion is not really a Jew” have turned so far from our identification with the powerless that our synagogues and public institutions celebrate and justify Israeli power? How could we have forgotten that the celebration of Chanukah and Passover and the observance of every Shabbat are meant to re-enforce our identification with the downtrodden? Yes, we know that the horrors of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism have distorted Jewish consciousness. Yet we—the section of the Jewish people who still hold on to the liberation message of Torah and of the prophets—will continue to reclaim, renew, and transform the Jewish religion to create a light in the ethical darkness that has spread through our religious community.
Given our own pain about how some have co-opted Judaism for hateful purposes, we can understand the pain that so many Muslims feel when they witness their religion turned away from its most liberatory and loving instincts and used to justify the violence of ISIS, al-Qaida, and Hamas, as well as the pain that Christians feel when Christianity is identified with reactionary politics. Our task as spiritual progressives is to reclaim the loving and emancipatory messages of our traditions, still shining through in the core of Chanukah and Christmas, even when the dominant society co-opts both holidays for its consumerist and self-congratulatory messages. We insist on keeping hope alive!