Jew vs Jew: The real Hanukkah story and why it matters - opinion

Hanukkah is, quite frankly, the most misunderstood holiday in all of Judaism. Its real story is not of Jews vs Seleucids, but of Jews vs Jews.

 TOURING MASADA – a symbol of Jews fighting against great odds, defending Judaism became the model of the modern state of Israel. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
TOURING MASADA – a symbol of Jews fighting against great odds, defending Judaism became the model of the modern state of Israel.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. I repeat. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.

What Hanukkah is, quite frankly, is the most misunderstood holiday in all of Judaism.

There are two parts to the Hanukkah story. That first part is found in Jewish sources, especially in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat. It is the story of the single crucible of oil that lasted eight days, instead of just one. It is a very short Talmudic discussion, but it is there, it is recorded history.

The second part of the Hanukkah story is the tale of Judah Maccabee, the famous hero who, together with his family, led the battle against the oppressive Syrian Greeks, called the Seleucids – and won. As a tale, it’s a great story. But historically, the story of Judah Maccabee is complicated and problematic.

In fact, the rabbis edited out the story. It is not found to be in Jewish sources. Almost everything we know about this story comes from the Apocrypha Book of Maccabees 1 & 2 which was probably written centuries after the battle of Judah Maccabee and the Seleucids.

 Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Apocrypha means hidden or secret books. These books were not put into the Hebrew Bible. They are not considered rabbinic works. They are considered Outer Books, or Sifrei Hitzonim. The story of Judah and the Maccabees is clothed in controversy.

There is no doubt that the rabbis knew about the battle against the Greek Seleucids. There is a reason explaining why the story of this battle and these heroes was left out of rabbinic history. And there is a reason explaining why it is so central and so popular today.

The rabbis shunned this battle story because, more than a battle between Jews and Seleucids, it was a battle between Jews and Jews. It was a civil war pitting Jew against Jew. It was a battle between the Hasmoneans, those Jews who rallied behind Judah the Maccabee and those assimilationist Jews who followed Hellenized Greek customs and fell under the spell of the culture of the Seleucid Empire.

The Book of Maccabees refers to the conflict as a battle between the Hassidim, the Righteous, and the Mityavnim (those who tried to be like Greeks), the Jewish Hellenists. Had the story had a happy ending, the rabbis might have embraced the tale, but that was not to be. You see, a few generations after their victory against the assimilationists, the Hasmoneans chose to combine the priesthood with the kingship. They shunned Jewish law and tradition. They became corrupt and oppressive. And as a result of their poor decisions, Herod rose to power – who was the last of the Hasmonean kings.

The rabbis could not embrace that tradition and that history. And so, the story of the revolt did not make its way into the canon of biblical or rabbinic literature.

So why is Judah Maccabee and his family’s story such a central part of the story of Hanukkah for us today?

Here’s why. When early Zionists were searching for models of Jewish fighters they found the story of Judah and the Maccabees and elevated these long ago warriors into the culture of Judaism. These Zionists leaders were not concerned with the essence of the story as the rabbis had been. They needed heroes who fought with weapons and who defended Jewish society and Jewish values. And the Maccabees fit the bill.

These same Zionist leaders scoured history and found another story not to be found in Jewish rabbinic sources. They found the story of Masada which comes to us via Josephus, the Roman historian. Those warriors atop Masada were Jewish fighters. But because they chose mass suicide over capture, the rabbis would never, could never, promote them as heroes.

The mystique crafted by those Zionists thinkers did not just transform history – it shaped the image of Israel, of Israelis and of Jews across the world. The Jewish hero, a defender, fighting against great odds, became the model of the modern state of Israel. And that legacy lives on to this day.

That is why Hanukkah is such an important holiday today. Not because it coincides with Christmas and we have something to celebrate just like everyone else, but because, like the State of Israel today, the Jewish state, Hanukkah embraces the model that Jews were the masters of their destiny.

It is not a very rabbinic idea – but it is certainly a very Zionist idea.

The writer is a columnist and social and political commentator.