When asked whether it was appropriate for an atheist to celebrate Christmas, Ayn Rand responded: “Yes, of course.”
She went on to identify that Christmas has a wider meaning than the tenets of any particular religion: a sense of good will toward men. She pointed out that this good will is expressed in the material, earthly form of giving gifts.
In his column “Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial,” Leonard Peikoff traced the history of Christmas back to its pagan roots, showing how Christians stole the holiday and imposed their religious meaning on it.
As someone who was brought up on the tradition of Chanukah instead of Christmas, I often wondered if there was a secular meaning to my tradition, similar to the one offered by Rand and Peikoff.
Could a celebration of Chanukah transcend the religious origins of the holiday?
The historical origins of Chanukah date back to 166 BCE, when the land of Judea was controlled by Antiochus Epiphanes, the ruler of the Syrian territory of the empire created by Alexander the Great. Whereas Alexander left the Jews of Judea alone, Antiochus attempted to replace their Jewish laws by Hellenistic pagan practices. This was not his original idea, though; he was bribed to do so by a faction of Jews who hoped to gain political control over Judea by adopting the ruler’s pagan culture.
It is important to realize, however, that this pagan culture was not the Greek civilization admired by many Objectivists:
The splendid achievements of the philosophers and the artists, their search for truth and beauty, their mellowed humanistic approach, did not come to the East in the wagons of the Greek conquerors. There came instead a degraded imitation of Hellenism, externals with the glowing heart burnt out, a crude paganism, a callousness for the common weal, a cheap sophistry, a cynicism easily undermining old conceptions and older loyalties, but substituting nothing constructive in their place.(A History of the Jews, Abraham Leon Sachar)
Chanukah commemorates the victory of devout Jews led by the Maccabees, a family from the priestly lineage, against Antiochus’ army, and against the faction of Jews who supported him. They instigated a revolt against Antiochus’ decrees, and a civil war against those who welcomed these decrees.
For the Maccabees, the profanity of Hellenism was epitomized by the placing of a statue of Zeus in the Temple. Upon their victory over Antiochus and his supporters, the Maccabees smashed the statue of Zeus, rededicated the Temple, and restored Jewish Law to Judea.
The central custom of Chanukah is the lighting of candles for eight days, which originated in the Talmud hundreds of years after the Maccabean victory. The Talmud tells of a miracle that happened after the dedication of the Temple: A little jug of oil lasted for eight days, until it could be replenished, so that the Menorah of the Temple was continuously lit.
Given the origins of the holiday, is there a way to transcend the ingrained religious meaning of Chanukah?
Interestingly, for all their religious fervor, the Maccabees were not endorsed by the Jewish religious establishment over the years. The Talmud provides little space for Chanukah, focusing on the miracle of the oil and never mentioning the name of Judas Maccabeus (who led the rebellion). The chronicles of the revolt in Maccabees I and II were excluded from the Hebrew Bible, though they remained a part of the Apocrypha (the Greek version of the Old Testament).
The religious establishment was uncomfortable with the image of the Maccabees in the chronicles of the revolt. The emphasis on their military exploits and personal heroism clashed with the religious view of man as the humble servant of a supernatural power. In a decisive battle, Jonathan Maccabeus, who succeeded Judas after the latter had been killed, even ordered his soldiers to fight on the Sabbath in order to avert certain defeat. (Maccabees I, 9)
Ironically, by adopting military valor the Maccabees came to resemble the Hellenistic heroes of the culture they were opposed to. The name Maccabee means “hammer-like” and was given to the warriors for their fighting spirit. The dynasty established by the Maccabees upheld the Jewish law, but was liberal and influenced by Hellenistic culture.
The Christians appropriated the pagan holiday of Solstice and imposed their religious meaning on it. Similarly, the compilers of the Talmud appropriated the victory of the Maccabees and imposed a religious miracle on it.
It is possible, therefore, to abstract the heroism of the Maccabees from the religious context in which it was expressed. Their courage transcends the specific religious goals for which they fought.
This was recognized in 1746 by the composer G. F. Handel, who was commissioned by the Prince of Wales to write a musical piece to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Cumberland over Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland. Handel wrote the oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus," using a libretto taken from the chronicles of the revolt in the first book of Maccabees and in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.
Handel and his audience realized the political parallels between Judas' victory over the Syrians and that of the Duke of Cumberland's over the Jacobites: “Judas unified a nation disrupted from within by Hellenizers co-opting foreign Syrian forces. Similarly, the Duke of Cumberland unified a nation disrupted from within by Jacobites co-opting foreign French Catholic forces.” A History of the Jews, Abraham Leon Sachar)
In her “Introduction to Ninety-Three,” Rand wrote that Victor Hugo’s emphasis in his novel was not: “What great values men are fighting for!” but: “What greatness men are capable of, when they fight for their values!” The secular meaning of Chanukah is, therefore, that of bravery and valor. This meaning transcends any specific historical context.
I personally celebrate Chanukah by reading about the history of the Maccabean rebellion and finding out about the real-life human beings who led it. And I light the eight candles to commemorate their courage to take their lives into their own hands and change the course of history.
Michelle Fram Cohen is a freelance writer and Hebrew translator, and an independent scholar. Her writings have been published in The Objectivist Forum, The Atlantean Press Review, the Atlasphere, and other Objectivist publications. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and son.