Hanukka and history

The parallels with events today are striking.

The Hanukka menorah at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Hanukka menorah at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The traditional explanation for lighting Hanukka lights is to commemorate a miracle. The oil for the menorah in the Temple was only enough to last for a day, yet it lasted for eight days.
But the rabbis had another message – to shift our attention from military and political achievements towards a spiritual direction.
The parallels with events today are striking.
Hanukka is not only about a conflict between Jews and their persecutors, but also about a power struggle among Jews over assimilation and ultimately Jewish identity. Even after religious and political freedom was established, more difficult questions of how to reconcile Torah to the world remained a problem.
Precisely because religious and political realms overlapped, Jews in their nation-state faced a momentous challenge: building Jewish civilization as a vassal state of a foreign power.
This internal drama pitting a more traditional and nationalistic country folk against an assimilated urban elite was played out against the background of a wider struggle within the Syrian Seleucid Empire between various contenders in which, at times, the Jews played a pivotal role.
Many Jews were not only willing but eager to accept the cultural and economic rewards of the Hellenistic world, unaware of the price that they would have to pay. As long as there was no direct oppression, they thought they could compromise and live without complete independence – and have the best of both worlds.
Anti-Jewish decrees, however, instituted by the despotic ruler Antiochus fueled a revolt against foreign persecution and domestic capitulation. A rebellion led by religious nationalists mobilized wide opposition to Seleucid rule and against Jewish collaborators at home.
The Temple needed to be cleansed, not only because of what the Greeks had done, but from a corrupt Jewish leadership.
What had begun as a struggle for national and religious freedom became an attempt to assert and define the integrity of Judaism itself and Jewish sovereignty.
What the Maccabees accomplished was not revolutionary, although we appreciate their military victories and celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple.
Their skillful diplomatic negotiations, establishing a royal court that imitated others and territorial expansion, especially involuntary mass “conversions” of non-Jews, changed the course and character of the movement. The Hasmonean state – Jewish self-rule – in itself represented a political achievement that enhanced the image of Jews in the world of its day. It may have helped to preserve Jewish identity, but it was not enough.
THE HASMONEAN state and dynasty provided a viable political entity that offered structure and continuity, and in so doing, a sense of unity and stability. The Hasmoneans became a popular symbol for Jewish independence, authority and legitimacy – a source of Jewish pride. It ended, however, ignominiously as an illusory superficial nationalism.
As we recall the feats and myths of the Maccabees, a more profound development was taking place in the world of the sages, the zugot (pairs), predecessors of the rabbis: Yehoshua ben Perachyah and Nittai Ha’arbeli, Yehuda ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, and Hillel and Shammai.
These religious leaders emphasized ethical and moral behavior in the prophetic tradition, beyond Temple ritual and political independence. Their contributions to Jewish civilization endured long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, when dreams of militant nationalism lay shattered amidst burning rubble. As Jewish sovereignty ended, rabbinic leadership arose.
FOR THE last 2,000 years we have been lighting candles to recall religious freedom which was restored as a result of the Maccabean revolt, and for some, a vision of political independence.
But later Hasmonean leaders did not want to do away with Hellenism; they couldn’t, it was culturally too powerful.
They wanted to incorporate Hellenic culture into Judaism. Their opponents, the reform party, wished to assimilate Judaism to Hellenism – a sellout! One may explain the compromise as a result of the weak social and authority structure of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael following their return from the Babylonian exile. There was widespread assimilation, economic dislocation, and no clear independent native leadership. Spared a destructive invasion by the armies of Alexander the Great, and often subjected to harsh treatment under foreign rulers, however, Jews and Judaism flourished.
Establishing a form of political independence gave the Hasmoneans their place in the world – a nation among nations. The head of state was appointed high priest by the Seleucids, obliterating the critical distinction between political and religious leadership, and, in the process, corrupting both offices.
The priesthood was not only responsible for Temple rituals, but primarily for education and the preservation of tradition. Increasingly, the Hasmonean form of government resembled that of the Greeks – a crude, despotic monarchy.
That is precisely what worried the rabbis, and may explain the adoption of the ritual lighting that we observe on Hanukka.
This seems to be confirmed in the Talmud (Shabbat, 21b) which tells us the story of the miraculous oil. “The following year these days were appointed a festival with (the recital of) Hallel and thanksgiving.” Kindling of lights, however, was not yet ordained.
THE 25TH of Kislev was chosen to inaugurate the holiday – the same day that a pagan altar was erected in the Temple three years before the revolt, and the day that Moses completed the mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert – perhaps to suggest that our Hanukka lights are a symbol of participating in rededication.
Beit Shammai holds that the lights correspond to the days to come – destiny and ultimate redemption. Beit Hillel directs us to the days that are gone – history and the possibilities that exist in our world. Both, however, are important.
Beit Shammai holds that the lights “correspond to the bullocks of the (Succot) Festival,” focusing specifically on the Temple. Beit Hillel says the reason is “to promote sanctity,” everywhere, especially in our home – merging place with time.
Under the Hasmoneans, it seemed that Jews had come of age. They had a modern state and army; but in the process they lost their distinctiveness and their purpose. Combining political and religious authorities symbolized the extent to which the integrity of the entire system had become compromised. By focusing our attention on lights and the Temple, the rabbis wanted to remind us that we are not only in history, but beyond it.
Kindling lights illuminates the destiny of the Jewish people and our place in that ongoing miracle. We light together, all of us, in darkness, to share a commitment to Jewish values and to a renewal of faith – in each other and in ourselves. ■ Published in Midstream, November 1999 The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist.