Hanukka is, at once, the least understood and most celebrated of our holidays.
The simplified story told to us as children and codified in coloring books (usually with Mr. Dreidel narrating it for us as an eyewitness to it all), is a rather straightforward narrative.
The Jews were living peacefully in their land, until the evil Greek King Antiochus forbade the practice of Jewish religion. Mattathias and his five brave sons, the Maccabees, led a revolt against the Greeks in which Judah the Maccabee distinguished himself as leader. Against all odds, the Jews were victorious over their enemies and recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, which had previously been defiled.
Looking to relight the Menorah, the symbol of the Jewish people, the Jews needed pure olive oil. In the aftermath of the war, none was to be found save for one small flask, which was only enough fuel for one day. Miraculously, the oil stayed lit for eight days until more oil was able to be prepared. In remembrance of this miracle, Jews today light the Hanukka menorah for eight days.
As with most things in life, the reality is more complicated and nuanced. Let’s begin our story in the year 332 BCE, with Alexander the Great’s capture of the Land of Israel.
Until then, Judea had been a rather unimportant province in the Persian Empire.
Far from the center of power, the Jews were left pretty much to themselves. As long as they paid their taxes, they were free to conduct their own affairs and even practice their religion in a rather autonomous, if not independent state.
This came to an end with the Greek conquest. Not only did the Jews now find themselves quite literally in between two great centers of power, Syria to the north and Egypt to the south, but they met a culture that for the first time rivaled Judaism.
Until the Greeks, every single pagan culture the Jews met was “beneath them.”
Yes, the Egyptians had their pyramids; Canaanites, their iron; Assyrians, their literature; Babylonians their ziggurats and gardens; and Persians their vast empire – yet they all paled in comparison to the light of the Torah.
While the Jews were usually poorer and less technologically capable than their neighbors, they shared a Torah that made the achievements of the pagans seem petty and temporal.
The Greeks were different. Moses’s law and the visions of the Prophets dwarfed Marduk and Gilgamesh, yet Euclid, Socrates and Plato actually had something to say that interested the Jews.
Indeed, to this day, one of the most remarkable figures in rabbinic literature is Alexander the Great. In a literature filled with stories about evil pagan kings, the rabbis seem to go out of their way to paint Alexander in the most positive light; talmudic legends portray him as an enlightened friend of the Jews. In fact, the very name Alexander is a Jewish name today, as a testament to those fond feelings.
In other words, the first meeting between the Jews and Greeks was a positive one.
The reasons are not hard to understand.
In the beginning of this meeting between the cultures, the Jews only flirted with Greek ideas, but after over a century of Greek rule, many were seduced entirely. As usually is the case when it comes to Jewish assimilation, it was the upper classes that were more quickly converted, and the lower classes – with their lesser exposure to the arts, theater and literature – which were more resistant to change.
The introduction of a gymnasium, with its attendant pagan rituals, soon rivaled the Temple as the center of Jerusalem’s culture and social attractions; even the priests neglected their Temple duties to go there. Over time, the Jewish population in Judea split between those who adopted the Greek culture, called the Hellenizers; and those who stayed true to their Jewish beliefs and practices.
By the time Antiochus made his decrees outlawing the Jewish religion, there was already a very fertile ground of Greek culture in Jerusalem for it to land on. It is for this reason that the rebellion against the Hellenizers began in Modi’in. At the time, Modi’in was a small village and therefore outside the realm of the pervading Hellenistic culture.
And this brings us to the crux of our story: The Maccabean rebellion was not just against the Syrian Greeks, but against our fellow Jews – who were assimilating Hellenizers, looking to supplant Judaism with Greek culture.
While the upper classes were on board with the new measures, the majority of Jews in the middle and lower classes demonstrated a fierce resistance and willingness to die in their masses for the faith of their fathers. While the idea of Kiddush Hashem, martyrdom for the sake of Judaism, did not originate with these rebels, it was the first time in human history that huge numbers of willing participants preferred death to conversion – serving as the paradigm of future martyrdoms of Jews and even Christians through out the millennia. (In fact it was the Christians – not the Jews – who retained the historical story of Hanukka, through the preservation of the Books of Maccabees in their biblical canon.) The decrees were cruel by any measure. Anyone found with a Torah scroll was put to death. Mothers were killed for circumcising their sons, and others were executed for refusing to eat non-kosher meat or desecrate Shabbat.
The real miracle of Hanukka, then, is that there are Jews still around to tell the story. The resulting war was not a war for political freedom, but religious freedom; the first of its kind in human history. The Jews, fighting the assimilationists within and the vast resources of the Syrian Greek military without, emerged victorious! Those who have the privilege of living in the resurrected Jewish state would be wise to learn the lesson of Hanukka. We have to be very careful in the global village of the 21st century not to lose our Jewish identity among the family of nations.
It amazes me how much we Jews yearn to be loved and accepted by the gentile world. We seem to be starved for their love, we ache to be acknowledged and approved by them. It seems we are so quick to adapt their culture, we risk losing our own.
The task of the Jewish state is to be at once a part of the world, and apart from it as well. A Hanukka that tries to mimic Christmas in its celebration is to negate the very reason for the holiday.
Hanukka is a celebration of the victory of our ancestors against the assimilation in their time. It was instituted as a holiday for all future generations, to serve as a reminder against too tight an embrace of the surrounding culture.
We would be wise to learn its lesson as we light the candles this year. The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.