There are two traditions regarding Hanukkah, an older light tradition about the increase of light in the dark time of the winter (Avodah Zarah 8b) and one a military tradition about the Maccabees’ victory over tyranny, the victory of the many over the few.
I like that Jewish tradition preserves both–one about the harshness of political work, struggle and even violence, another about the infinite light of G-d or the other person. (Ever wonder where undecidability in Derrida comes from? Or the relation between the political and ethical in Levinas? At least there are affinities.)
And it’s not just on Hanukkah that the two are found. On Passover, seder participants temper their joy at freedom from slavery by giving up some wine to remember the death of the Egyptians. On Purim, following a mystical tradition, Megillah readers stamp their feet to jeer at a tyrant, but afterward get so drunk they can’t see the difference between a tyrant and a hero. And at services, congregants go up on their tiptoes at the holy, but speak very quietly or only to themselves about immanent goods or glory.
In the haftarah portion for Hanukkah, G-d tells Zechariah through an angel, “Not by might (military) might, not by power, but by my spirit (ruach). Victory does not comes from military might but like all things comes from spirit–human and divine. Both might and spirit are needed. But the former gets its justification from the latter.
Here is “Not by Might, Not by Power,” from a 1992 CD called “Roots and Wings” by Linda Hirschhorn and her Berkeley a cappella group, Vocolot. This blog entry is dedicated in memory of my grandmother, Minnie Achtenberg, who used to write occasional columns for the Kansas City Star on Jewish holidays.