I love Hanukkah. Tonight is the first night, and my wife and I are going to start the eight days of lighting our menorah, just as we do every year. We’ll say the blessing, igniting the candles according to the ritual I’ve followed my entire life, then—unless I miss my guess—probably close with a kiss and a family hug with our son.
As a secular humanist with grave reservations about repeated ritual and a thorough disbelief in the power of prayer, I don’t do any of this lightly. I do it—like most of the other Jewish things I do—in solidarity with the millions of people who were killed and tortured and exiled for (among other reasons) wanting to light candles in the same way, including members of my family. More importantly, I do it while telling myself a very different story about the “miracle of light.”
The traditional story of Hanukkah involves a jug of oil that was supposed to last only one day lasting for eight days instead: thus the eight candles of the menorah (plus the ninth candle to light them all) and the eight days of the holiday. Naturally, I assume that either the story is entirely apocryphal or that the eight days is an exaggeration or that somebody kept sneakily adding more oil or something: it doesn’t matter. The point is, there are no miracles.
I consider it much more important to treat the story symbolically. During a time of year at which the days are getting shorter and shorter—when there’s a critical lack of sun—it’s not that surprising that suddenly we have a holiday centered around light. It’s not the only such holiday, either: think about the lights of the Christmas tree, the star of Bethlehem, and the kinara from Kwanzaa, for example. All of them, furthermore, are almost certainly influenced by (or stolen from) any number of pagan winter solstice celebrations. Tis the season, as they say, for light.
But I say again: it’s not a miracle. It’s a perfectly reasonable and testable proposition that the light is going to return, because the days do in fact get longer after the solstice (and the last of the holidays) passes. We don’t need rituals to make that happen. The earth starts orbiting back closer to the sun all on its own, obeying the law of gravity. The fact that we’ve managed to figure that out in the last two thousand years, despite our rituals and superstitions, is the other reason I celebrate Hanukkah. The light I cherish, in other words, is the light of knowledge.
What irks me is that the original story of the holiday still gets repeated, just as it was told to me many years ago: as if it was the gospel truth. I had to un-learn it, to question and investigate it; I wish other young children didn’t have to do the same. I certainly won’t make my son do it, that’s for sure; if I tell him the original story, it will be in the context of helping him understand why it can’t be true, and why it gets told, and how to interpret the story in non-realistic ways.
And that, in a nutshell, is what I think we should be doing in theater, too: not telling stories entirely as if they’re true, but acknowledging—in any number of different ways—that they are manufactured things, meant to convey other ideas that aren’t explicitly stated. Let’s not hide our seams or conceal our guide wires: let’s let the guts of our work be seen. It will help our audiences—and ourselves—understand that the light of reason and truth is rarely dogmatic and that dogma, in fact, can often be false. And that storytelling doesn’t need miracles: it just needs an open mind.