I LIKE to think of Hanukkah as a profoundly American holiday.
True, it's at root a Jewish celebration. It marks the victory of the Jewish rebel army known as the Maccabees in a guerrilla war against the occupying Syrian Greeks, whose king Antiochus IV had adopted the tactic of brutally repressing the Jewish religion to the point of banning all Jewish religious observation and defiling the Temple in Jerusalem with pagan rites and statues of Zeus and the Greek gods.
As a remembrance of the military victory along the lines of America's July 4th, Hanukkah was initially celebrated for eight days as a substitute for Sukkot, the fall festival that the Jews had been unable to observe because of the Greek desecration of the temple and the raging war of the second century BCE.
It was only a few centuries later that rabbis compiling the Talmud - the stories and laws that define Jewish practice worldwide - started their discussion about Hanukkah with the words, "What's [the deal with] Hanukkah?"
They went on to put a new spin on the holiday, emphasizing its theological rather than military significance. "Hanukkah" means "dedication," referring to the cleansing of the Temple and its rededication to God.
The rabbis recorded for the first time the story of the small flask of consecrated olive oil used to rekindle the Temple's menorahs (candelabra), which were required to burn through the night, every night. The small quantity that the rebels found seemed as if it would last for only a day - but miraculously lasted for eight, enough time to press and consecrate enough oil to fully establish the new Temple.
Though the days of Jewish independence were long past by the time the Talmud was compiled (the Romans had been in charge for for quite a while at that point), the rabbis still envisioned Hanukkah as a spiritual celebration marking the right of the Jews to worship God as they pleased, unencumbered by government interference. They linked the holiday with the words of the prophet Zechariah (4:6): " . . . Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Eternal One of the Heavens."
I don't know if those who wrote the First Amendment to our Constitution were aware of Hanukkah, but the story of faith in America is inextricably bound up in the notion that government must not impose any religion on the people.
Those who declare that the United States is a "Christian nation" need to ask themselves why it is that, in poll after poll, Americans identify as more religious than any other Western population.
Travel in Europe and you'll pass empty church after empty church, even though most European nations have had, or still have, established churches.
Go to Israel, whose current prime minister keeps talking about a "Jewish state," and you'll discover that only 20 percent of the population is active in a synagogue.
By contrast, here in America, where the free market extends to religion, the light of God shines as brightly as the menorah.
The story of the oil also bears some resemblance to issues of today. How was a limited amount of oil stretched to last long enough for a new supply to come in? Although we recognize it as a miracle, perhaps the victorious Maccabees helped by keeping the flame low, or by leaving branches of the menorah unlit?
Whatever the answers, there is surely a message here for us: If we want oil to last, we must be judicious in our use of it. National leaders gathering in Copenhagen to discuss global warming will easily fall back on time-worn approaches to crisis, focusing on immediate national interests instead of on long-term global crisis.