Rabbis Stern and Rabbi Waxman are right that our Hanukkah rituals are multi-valanced, as is any ritual that has lasted thousands of years. As such, Hanukkah responds to the human needs for light and hope at this darkest time of year. However they miss the most significant point of the Hanukkah story, which also is the most important response to Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens obviously does not know his history. The Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, did not fight to overthrow Hellenism. They united ultra-traditionalists and moderates to fight for religious freedoms that historically were granted to religious minorities under all previous Hellenistic kings. Why Antiochus Ephiphanes IV (the Hellenistic Seleucid King of Hanukkah) pursued a policy of persecution so inconsistent with Hellenistic policy has engaged scholars for decades. The point though, is that Hasmoneans were not fighting against Hellenism. They fought to reestablish the very rights that were supposed to be protected by Hellenism. Once they achieved that recognition, they took their place within the Seleucid Empire as a good client nation. More than that, they were also culturally part of the Hellenistic world. While they wrote in Hebrew, they also transmitted their story in Greek and gave their children Hebrew and Greek names. Still to this day, the Hasmoneans serve as a model for how to balance being part of a larger society and retaining allegiance to one’s ancestral traditions and faith–that continues to be an important message today.
They are also a reminder of another critically important lesson for today’s world: That one test of any democracy is its treatment of minorities and its respect for minority religious traditions. The Maccabees remind us of that as well. And that’s not a bad lesson during what is overwhelmingly experienced in America as the Christmas season. While Hanukkah is over for the Jewish community, the Muslim festival of Eid is next week, so maybe we can all be a little more like the Maccabees by wishing each other Happy Holidays!