The Irony of Celebrating Chanukah in a Sports Arena
by Eliyahu Federman
The Miami Heat hosted a Jewish heritage night at the basketball team’s Dec. 12 game at American Airlines Arena, with tens of thousands in attendance.
Chabad of Florida performed a menorah-lighting ceremony at half-time, and a Hanukkah party was held on the court after the game.
But the event itself was really quite ironic.
How odd, I thought, to celebrate Hanukkah in a sports arena, given that the concept of sports is emblematic of Greek culture.
Besides placing a great emphasis on rational thought with thinkers like Aristotle and Plato, the Greek and Hellenist culture glorified masculine physical strength and sports. The story of Hanukkah is about opposing the Greek idea that we are just soulless material beings whose bodies are ends in themselves, devoid of the divine spark and human dignity which transcends our physical appearance.
The Book of Maccabees recounts how the Greek-culture Seleucid Empire provoked a revolt in part due to the Greek-style gymnasium built in Jerusalem. The gymnasium represented the glorification of the body.
On the other hand the Maccabees, too, are a symbol of physical strength, both as ancient warriors fighting for religious freedom and in the modern-day “Jewish Olympics” held in Israel every four years. Perhaps hosting a Hanukkah party at a basketball game is quite appropriate after all.
It not only symbolizes the physical prowess of the Maccabees but is also a message of sanctifying and harmonizing the mundane Greek culture for a Godly purpose. Infusing the spiritual with the physical. Focusing on physical strength and health is a very Jewish concept, so long as the human body is not seen as an end in itself but part of the eternal soul endowed to every person. Prohibitions against mutilating the body are based on the principle that we are required to maintain our health because a healthy body is a healthy soul. Our bodies are not ours to harm.
In deciding whether a public display of a menorah outside a government building violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Allegheny vs ACLU, ruled that a holiday display with a menorah was constitutionally permissible because in the context of other holiday symbols such as the Christmas tree, the menorah served as a secular symbol with universal significance. Despite the fact that the menorah also has a deep spiritual and religious significance, the court’s ruling indicates there is a secular, universal dimension to the menorah as well.
The message and struggle of Hanukkah is universally applicable to all people at all times. Although it has deeply religious origins, there is also a secular message to Hanukkah. We must strive to combine the health of the physical body with the sanctity of the soul. By lighting a menorah in a sports arena, we combine these two aspects of life.
Ultimately, the story of Hanukkah reflects on the struggle of the poor, oppressed and colonized over the long span of human history seeking to achieve freedom and liberty. The very fact that a menorah lighting would be accepted in a sports arena, the place that was once a symbol of Jewish oppression, is a sign of ultimate conquest of freedom over tyranny.
Also, what better way is there to fulfill the mandate of publicizing the story of Hanukkah then to broadcast it to tens of thousands of people watching basketball? The Maccabees would be proud.