This Chanukah lights painful parallels to holidays birth

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In the best of times, the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, which begins at sundown Dec. 17, is filled with festive candlelighting, special prayers and songs, parties, and the exchange of gifts among family and friends.

But these are not the best of times. The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the political divisions in Israel today draw eerie parallels to the divisiveness 2,160 years ago in the Jewish community that observed the first Chanukah.

This fearful symmetry of paranoia and religious extremism within the family of Judaism will tinge my Chanukah this year with melancholy.

The word Chanukah means "dedication" and celebrates the victory of Judah Maccabee's small band of Jewish guerrillas, who recaptured the city of Jerusalem from the Greco-Syrian empire of King Antiochus IV. After Judah's victory, the Holy Temple was rededicated to the worship of God. Pagan altars were removed, Zeus' statue was destroyed, and traces of Greco-Syrian occupation were erased.

Legend has it that Judah discovered only enough oil to light Temple lamps for a single day. But miraculously, the small amount of oil lasted eight days, and ever since, Jews have commemorated this jubilant event.

Many scholars believe that if Judah had not triumphed, Judaism might have disappeared, just one more ancient Middle Eastern religion eradicated by a dictatorial regime. Some scholars further assert that if Judaism had not survived, Christianity — based on the teachings of a Jew named Jesus — would never have emerged two centuries after the Maccabean victory.

But there is a darker, more ominous dimension of the holiday that is often ignored. And Rabin's assassination has conjured up two painful aspects of Chanukah: internal Jewish dissension and Jews killing one another for religious and political purposes.

While Jews living in ancient Israel chafed under an imperial Greco-Syrian occupation, they also were bitterly divided over critical issues of religion and politics. Many Jews had abandoned their traditional Jewish faith and warmly embraced the dominant and dazzling Hellenistic culture that was replete with material wealth, science, art and literature.

"Why not?" they reasoned — as many members of minority religions do today when faced with the choice of keeping themselves distinct from the dominant culture or immersing themselves in it.

A majority culture is always attractive, especially when backed by economic, political, artistic and military power. One side argues that without flexibility, religion will become static. It may even self-destruct because of its inability to change with a changing world.

Others argue that only by firmly following the ways of our fathers can a religion survive the seductive allure of the larger society. This is a question that will never be completely resolved for any minority religion at any moment in history; it was especially intense in ancient Israel.

The sacred office of the high priest, the leader of the Holy Temple, was defiled by Jews who engaged in bribes and tawdry deals with the ruling political power. Intra-Jewish strife concerning religious beliefs and practices was the order of the day.

And the killing of one Jew by another in the town of Modin, not far from Jerusalem, was the spark that ignited the war between the occupied and the occupiers. An aged Jew, Mattathias, and his five sons, including Judah Maccabee, were commanded by Antiochus' officers to offer a public sacrifice to a pagan god.

Mattathias, faithful to his tradition, refused and shouted: "God forbid that we should forsake the Torah." But another Jew did come forward to make a sacrifice, and the enraged Mattathias killed him upon the altar, crying out: "Whoever is zealous for the covenant of our fathers, let them follow me."

With that battle cry, Mattathias and his sons fled to the neighboring mountains to begin a struggle against the occupying power and its Jewish sympathizers that ended with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Of course, there are many significant differences between the first Chanukah and modern Israel. Jews have achieved national sovereignty and political independence in their homeland. And no one is forcing Jews to abase their religious faith in public.

But then as now, there were deep political and religious fissures in contemporary Jewish life. And while Mattathias and Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, each killed a fellow Jew in far different times and for different reasons, they both cited fidelity to God as the reason for their violent acts.

That grim fact is reason enough to get beyond the conventional gaiety of Chanukah and ponder the holiday's deeper meanings.