As wintertime rolls around again, the most universally celebrated Jewish holiday —Hanukkah — will begin. When the average Jew is asked about the historical events leading up to this beloved holiday, he will claim the classic Jewish holiday line:
“An evil nation wanted to destroy us, the Jews fought back and were victorious — there was some sort of miracle regarding oil lasting eight days when it should have lasted for only one day — and now we celebrate”.
While this version of the story is well known, it could not be further from the truth.
Hanukkah is a very interesting holiday for many reasons. First, Hanukkah is the only holiday for which we have extensive extra–biblical evidence, meaning it is the only Jewish holiday that we are certain actually happened historically. Second, Hanukkah (or the Book of Maccabees) is not included in the Tanakh. Third, Hanukkah is not in the Mishnah. While a few Mishnayot mention it, they are in passing and do not deal with the holiday, itself. Lastly, the story of Hanukkah, as we will see, is not nearly as straightforward as other Jewish holidays.
Hanukkah is classically taught as the clash between Jewish and Greek cultures. From a young age, we are taught in Jewish schools — from Orthodox to Reform — that the Greeks brought about a new and evil ideology which sought to uproot our beloved religion. This is, however, not entirely true.
Almost everyone I know, no matter how religious, is positively affected by Greek culture. Sports, math, science, and philosophy — disciplines either created or spread by the Greeks — fill our day with joy and excitement. I cannot imagine living without these valuable societal mainstays. The ability to think about the world in a logical and reasonable way was brought to the world through the Greeks. Without them, there would be no modern day universities, labs, or other aspects that we take for granted in daily life. Even Judaism would have looked vastly different if many of our great sages were not exposed to Greek philosophy.
When it comes to Hanukkah, many people imagine the Maccabees as heroes fighting against the evil Greeks. However, when we consider what the Maccabees actually did, our story becomes very different. First, the Maccabees actually killed many more Jews than Greeks. Any Jew that became assimilated would be given no mercy by the hands of the Maccabees. In this light, the battle of Hanukkah can be more accurately viewed as a Jewish civil war than a Jewish-Greek war. Furthermore, under Hasmonean rule, many were forcibly converted to Judaism or killed. This is perhaps the only time in all of Jewish history when we forced people to convert. The Hasmoneans themselves were corrupt, as they usurped the high priesthood, an action for which many classical Jewish sources harangue them.
In a modern light, the Maccabees come across as religious fanatics killing anyone who tries to reform their religion. They did not accept any form of pluralism – they attacked Jews who were less “religious” than themselves. The Maccabees cannot be the classical Jewish heroes; they were extremists who would stop at nothing to spread their views. All throughout Jewish history, the Maccabees have inspired people to commit atrocious acts in the name of religious fanaticism. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the Zealots actually burned down storehouses of food, forcing the Jews to fight the Romans or be killed. Inspired by the Maccabees, the Zealots did not want to have any negotiations with the “evil” Romans. Rather, they wanted to fight to the death. Even during the Bar Kochba revolt, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed based on a false messianic pretense, Jews proudly saw themselves as the continuation of the glorious Maccabees.
So, what, then, can we learn from Hanukkah? Why is this the holiday where all Jews come together and proudly light the Menorah together as a community?
Classical Jewish sources have almost never viewed the Maccabean revolt as a positive story in our history. The Mishnah is completely silent when it comes to Hanukkah. Many have proposed that when compiling the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah purposely excluded Hanukkah so that the Maccabees would not inspire people to follow in their destructive ways. Many Jewish historians conclude similarly regarding the reasoning for the exclusion of the book of Maccabees from the Tanakh. The book of Maccabees has almost never been seen as an important book in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers. Even the Talmud–when talking about Hanukkah–is absolutely silent about the war, and only focuses on the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. It seems that the story of Hanukkah was truly the first act of religious censorship. Ironically, the censorship was meant to hide the religious extremism in hopes of a more ecumenical mindset.
So, let us follow the Talmud’s hint and focus on the lights.
Greek culture is extremely valuable to our world and we would be lost without it. I greatly appreciate the world of academia as it has given me invaluable insights into both the scientific and religious world.
However, the Greeks made one big mistake. While they brought many valuable institutions to the world, they also overstepped a crucial boundary. Adding schools of philosophy and sports arenas to Jerusalem — even turning it into a polis — may have been positive, but their desecration of the temple was one step too far. They believed that since they were intellectually superior to all other cultures, those inferior cultures and religions must be ridiculed and dispensed with. The Greeks argued that in a worldview dominated by intellect and rational thought, there was no room for temples or for faith.
The miracle of Hanukkah demonstrates that the Greeks did not win: the flames of faith and religion have lived on, even in a world dominated by Greek thought. Hanukkah, then, is not simply a story in the annals of history. Rather, it is a story of everyday life.
When my neuroscience professor states that his field of study has officially disproven God, this is the story of Hanukkah. When my biology professor writes as fact that morality is just an evolutionary detail without any intrinsic significance, this is the story of Hanukkah. When the world of science and philosophy views itself as superior, ridiculing anyone belonging to a religious group or having any “non-rational” faith, this is the story of Hanukkah. Our job as Jews is not to mimic the Maccabees but to realize that while there is plenty of good in the Greek world of academia, they cannot destroy our temple. This is the battle of Hanukkah, and this is the battle worth fighting for. The lights will continue to burn and our Judaism will live on.