Hanukka and Hellenization

Hanukka is the one Jewish holiday which has historically involved the least cessation of daily routine.

hanukka gift 88 (photo credit: )
hanukka gift 88
(photo credit: )
Hanukka, which begins Sunday night, has meant different things to different generations. Initially it was celebrated as a reminder of faith's victory over heresy, good over evil, and the few over the many. The quest to accentuate these ideas resulted in the unique custom of candle lighting, a ritual inspired by the principles of advertising, as reflected in the quest to beam an illuminating message into the public domain. Still, following the Hasmonean dynasty's demise, the status of Hanukka in particular and the Maccabees' memory in general were diminished, ostensibly reflecting a rabbinical disenchantment with the priestly dynasty's assault, in its latter days, on the Sages and their authority. While this theory has been debated by historians, the intriguing fact remains that Hanukka is the one Jewish holiday which has historically involved the least cessation of daily routine. Moreover, during the Middle Ages, in settings where the exhibition of even a distant Jewish victory was imprudent, the duty of lighting candles in a visible place was often compromised. Set against this backdrop, it is understandable that in the Zionist era the holiday was dramatically transformed. Much the way Tu Bishvat was salvaged from oblivion and fashioned as a celebration of farming, fertility and environmental commitment, Hanukka - and Lag Ba'omer - were radically redefined as a commemoration of national defiance and military heroism. The spirit of this focus remains palpable in the way the Hanukka story is retold annually in thousands of kindergartens and schools, highlighting the Maccabees' refusal to surrender to foreign rule and imperial whim, and admiring their courageous, inventive and effective guerrilla tactics. Perhaps the most telling emblem of this emphasis is the Israeli psyche's relocation of the very term Maccabi from its original meaning, an acronym for "he who is with God join me," to its current association with a network of sports clubs. The meanings of various holidays may legitimately evolve according to societal, geographic and historical contexts. And yet, in the case of Hanukka there is another factor, one that for pre-modern generations was irrelevant, and for modern Jews was often better suppressed than confronted. It's called Hellenization. Back in the 2nd Century BCE, the Hellenizers were those in Judea who consciously abandoned their heritage in order to embrace the Seleucid empire's. Just what constituted the Hellenizing that was such anathema to the Sages is a much more complex question. The enemies from within, as told in the Hanukka story, accommodated bans on the observance of circumcision, Shabbat and the dietary laws. Modern Jews, even non-observant ones, would have no trouble opposing such cultural intolerance. By the same token, they could appreciate the contribution to Judaism as reflected for instance in the works of Philo or the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. However, in its deeper sense the negative phenomenon of Hellenizing is actually alive and well, in two forms: In Israel, it is about disparaging Judaism out of ignorance and embracing foreign cultures out of emptiness, and in the Diaspora it is about abandoning Jewish continuity to the devices of assimilation. Hanukka in America has become part of an ecumenical super-culture that has paradoxically transformed the festival itself into an assimilation vehicle of sorts. But just as the early Zionists were right to celebrate ancient precedents of Jewish heroism in the face of physical siege, so should post-Holocaust Jews celebrate, and emulate, their forebears' confrontation of spiritual assault. In the 20th century the Jewish nation's grand task was to resist the physical assaults it faced, first in Europe, then in the Middle East. The fact that last century's challenge of physical survival ended in calamity, should make every concerned Jew reflect - not only about existential threats - over this century's spiritual and demographic challenges. And no time would be better for such reflection than Hanukka, when we celebrate the Hasmoneans' resolute assertion of their sovereignty, heritage and dignity.