The Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, begins Tuesday night, and the White House released a short video of President Donald Trump’s remarks at a celebration last Thursday. Those remarks set the perfect tone for Hanukkah, and began with a powerful — and perhaps controversial — statement.
“The miracle of Hanukkah is the miracle of Israel,” Trump declared. “The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have endured unthinkable persecution and oppression, but no force has ever crushed your spirit and no evil has ever extinguished your faith.”
Hanukkah does indeed celebrate a Jewish state of Israel resulting from years of anti-Semitic oppression. Just not exactly the current state of Israel.
“The Festival of Lights” commemorates the miracle of one day’s oil lasting for eight days during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The temple needed to be rededicated because it was desecrated by a Seleucid king, Antiochus IV “Epiphanes.” (The Seleucids ruled Israel after Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire, and his empire crumbled upon his death.) Following a revolt, Antiochus looted the Temple and outlawed Judaism.
In 167 B.C., this tyrant ordered that an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple. He banned circumcision and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on the Temple’s holy altar.
These actions inspired Mattathias and his son, Judah “Maccabee” (meaning “The Hammer”), to lead a revolution. Judah recaptured Jerusalem, rededicating the Temple in 165 B.C. He established the Hasmonean dynasty, which threw off Seleucid rule completely in 129 B.C. and lasted until the Roman general Pompey the Great (Julius Caesar’s rival) conquered the city in 63 B.C.
This was the first time since the Babylonian Captivity (roughly 597 B.C. to 539 B.C.) that Israel governed itself as an independent kingdom. The rededication of the Temple marked this independence and loomed large for the Jewish people until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
The story of Hanukkah is only alluded to in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tell the story of Judah Maccabee and the revolt. 2 Maccabees does, however, refer to a festival of relighting the holy fire initiated by Nehemiah (the Old Testament prophet who helped rebuild the Temple), and it cites the 25th day of Chislev, the day on which Hanukkah begins.
The miracle of oil is widely regarded as a legend and its authenticity has been questioned. Even so, Orthodox Jews believe it took place, and there is no proof it did not. Indeed, it seems fitting that God would bless the rededication of His Temple with a miracle.
Trump captured this history in his full statement. The president noted that the story began “with a tyrant who made practicing the Jewish faith punishable by death. He desecrated the Jewish temple including the Holy of Holies, but a small band of Jewish patriots rose up, defeated a mighty army, and soon reclaimed their freedom.”
The president recounted the miracle of oil, noting that “the lamp continued to burn brightly, a sign of God’s presence in His dwelling place and a symbol of the faith and resilience of the Jewish people.”
Trump celebrated Jewish Americans, saying, “I also want to say how grateful I am for Jewish congregations throughout our country. You cherish your families, support your communities, and uplift our beloved country.”
At the event, Trump presented a menorah from “the first original Jewish congregation” which came to the U.S. in the 1650s, and another lamp that survived the Holocaust, preserved by a Holocaust survivor the president honored.
The president also cited his official statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a controversial — and even perhaps dangerous — move that nevertheless honored his campaign promises (and those of former presidents). “Right now, I’m thinking about what’s going on and the love that’s all over Israel and all about Jerusalem,” Trump said.
He concluded with a strong declaration of support for Jews, Israel, and Judaism. “Today, our nation is stronger and our world is more full of promise because of the Jewish people, the state of Israel, and the faith that burns so brightly in your hearts,” Trump said.
The president’s speech honored the history behind Hanukkah and its deep meaning, and he was actually right to connect it to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though this move was controversial.
This honoring the basic truths behind a holiday came in stark contrast to Trump’s Christmas declaration, in which the president shied away from the Christian teaching that Jesus is God. This doctrine is the real reason why Christians celebrate Christmas — it is a miracle, known as the “Incarnation,” in which God Himself became flesh. Rather than articulate this true meaning of Christmas, Trump suggested Joseph was Jesus’ father and said the source of Christmas joy is that “each one of us is a child of God.”
Even so, some could attack Trump’s celebration of Hanukkah because the White House is decorated with Christmas trees, which were visible in the background even during Trump’s speech. Orthodox Jews could also complain about Trump’s use of the word “God” to refer to YHWH. Many Jews, out of deference for the Deity, refuse to write or say this three-letter word. Instead, they refer to G-d as “Hashem,” which means “the Name.”
Despite Trump’s use of “God” and the presence of Christmas trees, the president did well in articulating the central meaning of Hanukkah, and that is praiseworthy.
Click “Load More” to watch Trump’s remarks.