At the front of the synagogue, a bearded rabbi closes his eyes and gently rocks back and forth in his chair, cradling his guitar as he weaves a hypnotic spell of delicate songs, melodies and spiritual meditations on the meaning of Hanukkah.
In the first pew of the dimly lit sanctuary, a woman undulates her hands and arms in the air, keeping rhythm with the music, movements that would be familiar to any Pentecostal Christian.
This is a very different way of celebrating the Jewish Festival of Lights, which begins tonight at sundown and lasts for eight days.
After the two-hour presentation, which is undisturbed by applause until it ends, another woman approaches Rabbi David Zeller and thanks him for transporting her to a different level of understanding.
Saturday evening’s event was the first of a two-day conference at Orlando’s Congregation of Liberal Judaism, “Discovering and Igniting Our Hidden Soul: The Spiritual Depth of Hanukkah.” On Sunday, more than 50 people from Central Florida’s Jewish community sang and meditated with Zeller.
In a soothing, almost ethereal voice, the rabbi says Hanukkah is “one of the most mystical of holidays, because it comes out of the oral tradition,” rather than from the Hebrew Bible. “The deepest secrets are contained in this holiday. It carries a tremendous power,” says Zeller, founder of the Shevet Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation in Jerusalem.
Richard Stone, a Maitland writer and storyteller, says he and others helped organize the weekend because they sensed “a hunger here for something more.”
Stone’s wife, Elizabeth Cohen, agrees.
“Some of us need to take the outer stories of our holidays and enliven them spiritually, so it’s not just a historical celebration,” says Cohen, another organizer of Zeller’s visit.
Despite efforts like this to focus on Hanukkah’s spiritual aspects, Stone and Cohen may be facing an uphill battle. It is much easier, especially for parents and children, to observe the holiday as they have for years, as an occasion for celebrating a long-ago military victory, and for gift-giving.
An element of Hanukkah’s true history — of civil war between Jews — may make the search for spirituality even more difficult.
Jewish leaders frequently (and, usually, fruitlessly) point out that Hanukkah is artificially elevated by the calendar and commercialism. Because it’s not biblical, Hanukkah did not become prominent on the Jewish calendar until several hundred years ago in Europe, where the coincidence with Christmas was highlighted by the use of candles in both holidays.
But that is only part of the problem. For rabbis, another troubling aspect of the holiday is that it celebrates a military victory as much as a spiritual one. More than 2,200 years ago, religious Jews who became known as the Maccabees rebelled again their Syrian-Greek occupiers, whose king was determined to impose paganism on his subjects.
Today, the story is irresistible to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Mel Gibson, fresh off his success with The Passion of the Christ, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper last March that the Book of Maccabees fired his imagination, and that the father and sons who led the revolt might be the subject of his next biblical epic.
The Maccabees “stood up, and they made war,” he said. “They stuck by their guns and they came out winning. It’s like a western.”
However, the story is not that simple — which is one reason the biblical account of the struggle is not included in Hebrew scripture. What is not emphasized in the songs and stories about Hanukkah is that the successful uprising was also a civil war among Jews, between observant rebels and those who wanted to assimilate Hellenic culture.
“Our rabbis purposely decided to suppress the story,” says Rachamim Berman HaLevi. “It was a terrible period of sectarian Jewish strife and violence.”
HaLevi was part of a recent presentation at the University of Central Florida, sponsored by the International Society for Sephardic Progress.
The evening included the showing of a new documentary, Emperors and Rebels: The True Story of Hanukkah, which features yet another troubling aspect of the Hanukkah story: The Maccabees founded a ruling dynasty that ended in corruption and collaboration with the rising Roman Empire a century later.
So instead of focusing on the military aspect of the holiday and its political ramifications, rabbis throughout the centuries have emphasized a much smaller part of the story.
According to tradition, when the Maccabees entered Jerusalem, they found the temple had been defiled. It was cleansed and rededicated, but there was not enough holy oil to keep the Everlasting Light burning until new oil could be pressed. But one day’s supply lasted for eight days, which was considered a miracle, giving Hanukkah the name, Festival of Lights.
This aspect of the holiday is foremost on the minds of those at the Congregation of Liberal Judaism.
“Hanukkah is really about light,” says Joy Bochner, one of the Zeller event’s organizers. “And it’s about a time of rededication and the idea of bringing light out of darkness in a time of year that is darker. A time of celebrating light. That’s what spirituality is about for a lot of people.”
Hanukkah, Bochner says, should be “a time of renewal — not just a time to get run down buying presents and cooking, things you do during the holiday season.”
But she admits that emphasizing spiritual renewal can be daunting in Western countries that celebrate Christmas as a national holiday.
Jewish parents in North America sometimes complain that their children’s holiday is vastly overshadowed by Christmas.
Mixed-faith couples face what has come to be known as the “December dilemma,” deciding which holiday to celebrate and how.
In the “worst nightmare” category, this year brings “Chrismukkah” greeting cards, based on “a blend of favorite traditions from both Hanukkah and Christmas,” according to their creators, an interfaith couple named Ron and Michelle Gompertz.
Not surprisingly, the idea hits a nerve with some rabbis.
“I find these cards offensive to both Christians and Jews,” says Rabbi Daniel Wolpe, of the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation.
“It should be offensive to Christians because it puts a minor Jewish holiday on the same par” with one of their holiest holidays, he says. “It should be offensive to Jews because the entire story of Hanukkah is the battle against assimilation, and these cards embrace it. These cards show a clear ignorance of the history, importance, and meaning of both holidays.”
For Bochner, the Hanukkah observation at the Congregation of Liberal Judaism takes the celebration to a higher plane.
“This is a way of learning more about the true meaning of Hanukkah,” she says, “and celebrating that meaning, celebrating personal rededication.”