Not as tightly knit in paradigm, theme, and practice as the other holidays, Hanukkah lends itself to being a type of holy day Rorschach test. Every community and generation has interpreted Hanukkah in its own image, speaking to its own needs.
When the rabbis of Talmudic times asked, "What is Hanukkah?" their answer focused on the purification of the Temple and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, despite the fact that there seemed to be oil enough for only a single day. As a new spiritual leadership dealing with the religious challenge of Jewry's survival after the loss of Jewish sovereignty and power, the rabbis stressed the divine miracle to the exclusion of military and diplomatic acts and the sovereignty exercised by the Maccabees after their victory.
Similarly, medieval Jews focused on the divine miraculous activity in Hanukkah, projecting their own sense of helplessness and their longing for the messianic redeemer to do it all for them.
By contrast, modern Zionists saw in Hanukkah a reflection of their agenda: They celebrated Maccabee military prowess and political achievement. An early secular Zionist song proclaimed that "a miracle did not happen to us, we found no cruse of oil." To these Zionists, the Maccabees' state-building was the eternal message of the holiday.
For modern liberal Jews, Hanukkah became the holiday of religious freedom. The Maccabee fight was presented as the uprising of a religious community against suppression. The Festival of Lights was a victory for, and a living model of, the religious tolerance that Jews sought in the modern world. To uphold this view, liberals had to filter out the fact that while the Maccabees fought for the right to practice their own religion, they were hardly pluralist. In fact, the Maccabees fought Hellenizing Jews--those who were assimilating into Greek culture--to the death and suppressed them as they achieved power.
Similarly, American Jews have turned Hanukkah into the great gift-giving holiday. Other than the children's games and very modest Hanukkah gelt--money--there was not much in the tradition of the holiday that supported the idea of an eight-day orgy of giving presents. But Christmas is so pervasive in America, and the children's sense of being shut out was so fierce, that Hanukkah was rededicated as the season for giving.
Several important issues in Hanukkah's origins remain central in contemporary culture. One theme is the clash of the universal with the particular. Hellenism saw itself as the universal human culture, open to all. But Judah Maccabee and the brave people who saved Judaism were not fighting for a pluralist Judea. They were fighting against the state's enforcement of Hellenist worship because they believed it was a betrayal of Israel's covenant with God. When, after decades of fighting, they liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple, they established a state in which Jews could worship God in the right way--not just any way.
Hanukkah is not a model for total separation of church and state. On the other hand, the Maccabee victory saved particularist Judaism. It preserved the stubborn Jewish insistence on "doing their own thing" religiously; never mind the claims of universalism, that only if all are citizens of one world and one faith will there be truly one humanity.
By not disappearing, Jews have continued to force the world--down to this day--to accept the limits of centralization. Jewish existence has been a continued stumbling block to whatever political philosophy, religion, or economic system has claimed the right to abolish all distinctions "for the higher good of humanity." Since the centralizing forces often turned oppressive or obliterated local cultures and dignity, this Jewish resistance to homogenization has been a blessing to humanity and a continuing source of religious pluralism for everybody, not just Jews.
In this time, too, many cultures--Marxism, triumphalist Christianity, certain forms of liberalism and radicalism, fascism, even monolithic Americanism--have demanded that Jews dissolve and become part of humankind. All these philosophies have claimed that Jews can depend on their principles and structures to provide for Jewish rights. The Maccabee revolution made clear that a universalism that denies the right of the particular to exist is inherently totalitarian, and will end up oppressing people in the name of one humanity.
Universalism must surrender its overweening demands and accept the universalism of pluralism. Only when the world admits that oneness comes out of particular existences, linked through overarching unities, will it escape the inner dynamics of conformity that lead to repression and cruelty.