Dec 12, 2023
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The Luminous Dark

How can we understand Hanukkah in a way that rejects colonial conceptions of light and dark?

THE SIXTH NIGHT of Hanukkah falls on Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the darkest day of the darkest month of the year. The midrash states that every year on this day, the Leviathan—that mighty, mythical sea monster—emerges from the deep, rears its head, and roars. The other great fish of the sea cower in fear, and it is only because of this annual roar that the smaller fish, their prey, are able to live on.

One might wonder at the place of the Leviathan, a mythical beast often presented as the embodiment of primordial chaos, in a dvar for Hanukkah. But while Hanukkah is set against the historical backdrop of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, in rabbinic literature this festival of lights is tied to the very chaos and uncertainty of creation. Tractate Avodah Zarah imagines Hanukkah sharing its mythic origin with Saturnalia and Kalenda, ancient Roman holidays bordering the winter solstice, proposing that each celebration hearkens back to the story of Adam HaRishon (the first human) and his first winter. When Adam HaRishon noticed the days growing shorter and dimmer, he feared this contraction was a result of his sin, the earth slowly returning to its swirling un-formed-ness. For eight days he fasted. When the solstice passed and the days grew brighter, Adam HaRishon realized the changing light was not a collapse into unformed chaos but rather a testament to the order of this new world—a rolling darkness, a returning light. For eight days he rejoiced.

At its core, Hanukkah is a holiday about light and darkness. We can easily imagine how such a narrative unfolds: Light conquers darkness, diminishes it, banishes it. Our menorahs glow bravely in an unforgiving night, in the heart of winter, restoring order to a world Adam HaRishon had thought lost to chaos. But what logics are entrenched when we fall back on this familiar story? It is not a foregone conclusion that we valorize light as goodness and order and demonize dark as chaotic evil and Other; it’s a theological and political choice, one made throughout history to reify racist binaries and shore up brutal logics of domination.

In The Face of the Deep, theologian Catherine Keller explores the history of this choice, noting how Western representational orders have been forged in concert with imperial political agendas: “To manufacture the ‘ontological whiteness’ of its subjects . . . [Western civilization] has relentlessly, spiritually and materially, de/faced the dark,” asserting the “imposition of order” via whiteness as a moral good. This light/dark binary is a structuring principle of colonial thought, and indeed a constitutive element of settler identity. Anticolonial scholars—including, notably, the Martinican psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon and the French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi—point to the formation of settler identity as that which is not native, and vice versa; each is only legible in contrast to the other. The light is that which is not dark; order is that which is not chaos.

This colonial alignment of light with goodness and order and darkness with chaos and an ever-threatening Other derives authority from Western theological interpretations that reinforce this binary. As Keller explains: “The abiding western dominology can with religious sanction identify anything dark, profound, or fluid with a revolting chaos, an evil to be mastered, a nothing to be ignored . . . From the vantage point of the colonizing episteme, the evil is always disorder rather than unjust order; anarchy rather than control, darkness rather than pallor.” Keller links this racist binary to what she calls “tehomophobic” theologies—theologies that shrink from the second line of Genesis, which describes the unformed, roiling world preceding creation: “Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep [tehom], and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.” These theologies either erase the pre-existence of chaos and hold that creation emerged from nothing, or present creation as a narrative of triumph over the tehomic dark, an imposition of order upon the untamed chaos.

We don’t have to look far to find colonial invocations of these tropes. Soon after Israel began waging its genocidal war against Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that what we are witnessing is “a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” Israeli soldiers have erected menorahs amid the ruins in northern Gaza, which Chabad emissaries insist “will bring light to the darkest places.” At the recent pro-war march in Washington, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson declared, “This is a fight between good and evil, between light and darkness, between civilization and barbarism.”

Given these nefarious deployments of the rhetoric of light “banishing” the darkness, how can we tell a story of Hanukkah that does not capitulate to a narrative of racist domination? In their essay “A Little More Darkness,” rabbinic intern Kendra Saperstein writes: “Taking my own Black existence seriously means that it is not enough to rely on universal metaphors for light during this time [Hanukkah].” How, then, might we heed this call to, in the words of writer bell hooks, “talk about the need to see darkness differently”? If not light as vanquisher of darkness, then what?

As Keller suggests, we must take seriously the idea of tehom, the unformed deep, as a source of generative potential. Returning to Genesis, we find that order and meaning emerge not from negation of chaos, but from the chaos itself. In this vision where God creates the world not from absence or suppression but in drawing order from the chaotic formlessness, we must also acknowledge that the evocation of light is not a banishment of darkness; rather, light is drawn from the darkness itself, made from it, bound to it.

This creative and cooperative vision of world-making is the grounds of what the critical theorist Homi Bhabha calls the “third space”—a liminal postcolonial order that, as he writes in The Location of Culture, “gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.” The unknowable is not something to be fended off; it is the very condition of a better world. With this understanding, we can revisit Adam HaRishon’s relief in watching the lengthening days and realizing that this is the order of things. His comfort, we see, derives not from the taming or elimination of the unformed chaos he initially feared, but rather from a recognition that the deepest darkness is not a fabric unraveling; it is as much “the way of the world” as the growing light. It is in this ebb and flow that we situate our celebration.

Indeed, we must admit, upon contemplating the menorahs in our windowsills and their lovely, flickering lights, that they do not in fact banish the dark; it still envelops our homes, silken and impenetrable. (The sages draw our attention to Hanukkah’s emphasis on the all-consuming dark by contrasting it with Kalenda and Saturnalia; these, they suggest, cover the period of light’s evanescence and reemergence, while Hanukkah span only the days of increasing darkness.) Even as we follow Beit Hillel’s formulation of the mitzvah, adding a candle each day, we do not overcome the early night. Instead, we recall that light glows brightest amidst a generative dark, that dark reveals its manifold textures in the presence of glowing light.

We return, finally, to the Leviathan. He was not forgotten, only waiting in the deep. On the darkest day of the year, the Leviathan emerges from the great waters and roars. His roar is not one of dominion; he does not banish the great fish only to take their place as hunter. He does not clear the oceans and start anew. Rather, his roar disrupts a broken system and creates the condition for a new one to emerge. His chaos does not threaten the very possibility of order—only those invested in maintaining an order of domination. On Rosh Chodesh Tevet, as Hanukkah draws near its end, the Leviathan roars, and the world is overturned.

This Hanukkah, may we find relationship both with the blessed light and the unfathomable dark. May we draw from it the chaotic potential of a new and better world.

A version of this dvar originally appeared in a collection of divrei Torah about Hanukkah released by All That’s Left, an Israel/Palestine-based collective that organizes against the occupation.

Lexie Botzum is a Torah learner, teacher, and anti-occupation activist based in Jerusalem.