"...a Jew went up before the eyes of all of them to offer sacrifice as the king commanded, on the altar in Modi'in. And Mattathias saw him and was filled with zeal, and his heart was stirred, and he was very properly roused to anger, and ran up and slaughtered him upon the altar..."
-I Maccabees 2:23-24
Visiting the Old Country, driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike a few days before Chanukah, I find myself listening to an NPR interview of a musician about an upcoming concert of Chanukah music. He sees the music as highlighting the universal spiritual motifs of this festival of light, a holiday in which we can all find joy and spiritual light. It occurred to me that Mattathias probably would not enjoy the concert.
Growing up in liberal Jewish America, I learned that Chanukah was a struggle for religious freedom. Meanwhile, Jews growing up in Israel at the same time learned that Chanukah was a struggle for national independence. And while we were eating latkes in Chicago and the Israelis were eating sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) in Tel Aviv, the historians were writing that Chanukah was a civil war, a struggle between Jewish factions - between those seeking acculturation if not assimilation, and those zealous for absolute rejection of Hellenistic culture. Note that in the text above, the first casualty of the revolt was a Jew killed by another Jew. And ironically, of course, once the Maccabees took power their zealotry soon lapsed into realpolitik - compromises, imitations, and alliances with Hellenistic culture and ultimately with the Roman empire.
Uncomfortable with the Maccabees' policies, the rabbis spiritualized the holiday from a victory celebration to a remembrance of the miracle of the oil, a lighting of lights that falls, probably not coincidentally, right around the longest night of the year. The Zionists then rehabilitated the Maccabees and, rejecting "spiritual" values - and miracles - brought back the celebration of military might.
I suspect that Chanukah is presently undergoing a further evolution in North America, as the community pulls back from the "We Are One" rhetoric of Israel as our lowest common denominator, from seeing our national identity as the defining factor of our commonality, and seeks to reclaim the spiritual dimension of Judaism. Israeli dancing is being replaced by Hasidic dancing. History is being replaced by healing. The romance of pioneering is being replaced by the romance of Kabbalah. And so we follow in the Talmudic rabbis' footsteps and replace Chanukah the celebration of military might, of national independence - with Chanukah the festival of light, of dedication, of "not by might and not by power but by spirit."
Heinrich Heine said "wie es christelt sich, also judelt es sich" - as it Christians, so it Jews - meaning that trends (social, cultural, spiritual) within our community often reflect the trends in the surrounding society. I suspect that is part of the explanation for our turning inward. But it also seems likely that this trend is being partially driven by our ambivalence about the state of Israel as it operates in history - in our name.
As long as Israel was an underdog, perpetuating our image of ourselves as eternal victims (and therefore not responsible for what happens to us), we could identify with it unrestrainedly, glorying in its achievements "against all odds," and in the purity of its behavior. But it turns out that one of the aims of Zionism was to achieve political power, to return to being a national actor on the stage of history - and as we have achieved that aim, our self-image of purity has gotten, willy-nilly, tarnished. We find ourselves uncomfortable with some of Israel's behaviors - which, out of solidarity, we feel we must support. Perhaps the trend away from nationalism as an expression of Jewish identity is a kind of flight from these doubts and ambivalences. Perhaps, therefore, we are more comfortable with a Chanukah that is a festival of light and spirit and the power of prayer than we are with the Chanukah of Mattathias and Yizchak Rabin and Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon.