NewCAJE – New Sessions on Hanuka

Truth and Meaning in the Hanuka story
(for Middle and High School students)
Using Philosophical Inquiry to Explore Question of Truth and meaning
in the Hanuka Narrative
Hanuka is a complex holiday, carrying many messages. Its historic roots are documented in various sources, yet these sources convey different information and explain the rituals of the holiday in different ways.  For many children, the story of Hanuka is interwoven with the ‘miracle of oil’ through a narrative of the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus’s army. By middle school many students are questioning what to make of this miracle and the ‘truth’ of this historic narrative. Often, we as educators, leave them to address this question of truth on their own. This lesson seeks to explore the question of truth head on. The focus here is not on teaching the story of Hanuka (indeed it presumes Middle School students know the basics of this story), rather, it offers a philosophical exploration of the concept of truth in a way that is accessible to Middle School youth.  The aim of the lesson (or series of lessons) is to offer students a more sophisticated understanding of the notion of truth so that they may have more complex cognitive resources available to them through which to make meaning of this holiday.

These lessons explore the concept of truth in general, and truth in relation to the holiday of Hanuka in particular. The session is designed for Middle and High School students. The lessons are inquiry based. Students will mostly be working in groups then coming back to share and discuss further in a larger group together.

To access the full lesson plan click here   

To access the resources used in the lesson plan click on the icons below
(N.B. both Word and PDF versions are provided so that you can adjust the resources to your students if necessary)

  • A short story called: “A True Story” and discussion guides             
  • A source sheet on the narratives of Hanuka           
  • A final worksheet‘Where do I stand’: truth and meaning in Hanuka’           

Ideas behind this approach to Jewish education?

The need for meaning centered education:
In an open world in which the next generation is faced with fluid choices about how to live, Jewish education needs to help our students develop both the capacity to construct meaningful Jewish identities and a sense of purpose that is:

  • Informed by the ongoing Jewish conversation
  • Lived in community 
  • In dialogue with the world around them, and 
  • Grounded in sound judgment

Yet figuring out who we are and how we ought to live cannot be done in isolation from other people. That is to say, ‘Thinking for myself’ is not a solitary activity – it happens through engaging with the voices of others – both voices of other members of our own communities, and the voices that make up the extended conversation of our traditions ‘over time’ – voices within Jewish and Western culture that we are able to engage with through the written word and through the Arts. In helping our students develop their own identities and sense of purpose in community with others we are also building their capacity to create vibrant Jewish communities engaged in the ‘Big Questions’ concerning how we ought to live.

Philosophical Inquiry in Jewish Education:
Philosophy taps children’s natural curiosity and engages them in a search for meaning. Philosophy is the arena in which we make sense of our experience, figure ourselves out and develop a worldview. It awakens our puzzlement and curiosity, grabbing our attention and inviting a response. Abraham Heschel suggested that philosophy is ‘the art of asking the right questions’ – questions such as:

  • What makes something fair?
  • Is honoring someone and respecting them the same thing?
  • What do we mean when we say something is a miracle?

Questions however are the end of a thinking process, not the beginning of one. First we are puzzled by something, something grabs our attention, bothers us or pulls us up short – forming a question that captures this puzzlement is itself hard work! Developing the capacity to find an interest and ask a question is critical to a meaning-centered education, it shifts the pedagogical moment from one of response/reaction to initiation/pro-action.

Philosophical Inquiry in Jewish Education combines rigorous exploration of meaning with community building and rich, deep Jewish content knowledge through a pedagogy that enables students to think for themselves as a member of a deliberative community. Group discussion is not only seen as a pedagogy but as the means by which we name, make sense of and evaluate our experience and our ideas. Through creating communities of inquiry, participants engage in collaborative meaning-making. Such deliberation maintains individual autonomy (I must still figure out for myself where I stand on the issues discussed), but places this thinking within a communal context that recognizes human inter-dependence. As a communal activity, cognitive work is thereby integrated with deep attention to building reflective, creative and caring community. 

This approach to education is midrashic in nature: involving close reading of text, a playfulness and openness to interpretation, along with the understanding that interpretation happens in connection to the thinking of others (both those who have come before us and our contemporaries).

Central to this approach is an interplay between the world of the child and the text. This happens through exploring the meaning of key concepts and language as it resonates in the child’s life alongside meanings contained in the interpretative tradition. Discussion guides are offered for this purpose. For example, exploring the concept “Miracle” we might use a discussion guide that asks the students what the word ‘miracle’ means when it is used in everyday contexts such as:

         Discuss what the term ‘miracle’ means in each of these situations

  • “It was a miracle he survived the accident”
  • “At Hanukah we talk about the miracle of the oil”
  • “When my baby brother was born and I saw him for the first time I thought ‘this is a miracle’”
  • “The trapeze artist performed miraculous feats of daring”
  • “My biology teacher talks about the miracle of life on earth”
  • “It was a miracle that I got my homework done on time”
  • “The magician pulled a rabbit out of the hat – it was a miracle!”
  • “I used to take butterflies for granted, but now we have studied them, I think each one is a tiny miracle!”

The point here is not that there is right or wrong answer, a true meaning or a false one – what we are tapping into in discussing these examples is the child’s existing understanding of what this term signifies. To reflect on and articulate the meaning of the term in their existing conceptual scheme.

By broadening the range of possible meanings available to our students, we help them develop nuanced meaning-structures through which they are able to interpret their own lives. (My favorite anecdote is about a group of Grade 3 students who were getting ready for a class trip, and the teacher was hurrying them to the bus. One student turned to another and said “What is this, an exodus?” The student had internalized the meaning of exodus and could draw on this meaning in reference to their own life, even if in a somewhat wry manner!)