Next Monday is the first day of Hanukah, a holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah, but like Purim and (more controversially) Yom Ha’atzmaut, came along later as a commemoration of fraught and violent events.
What are we celebrating on 25 Kislev? The four Books of the Maccabees are not in our Tanach. They are found in the Christian Bible, originally written in Greek, and most Jews haven’t read them. Interestingly, the well-known miracle of the oil, in which one small container of oil lit the rededicated Temple’s menorah for eight days, did not appear in the Books of the Maccabees, but was only found in the Talmud some hundreds of years later. Some writers also mention the fact that many pagan societies celebrated the Winter solstice at this time, and speculate that the fact that Christmas and Hanukah are both observed on the 25th of their respective months is not an accident.
The events of 165 BCE are obscured to some extent by the fog of the millennia that separate us from them. We know there was some kind of violent confrontation involving the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, but did it start with the Seleucid Greeks trying to force the Jews to give up their traditions and profaning their Temple, as described in I Maccabees? Or did the Greeks intervene in an ongoing internecine struggle between the zealous Maccabees and other Jews who were abandoning Jewish traditions, Hellenizing their names and adopting pagan customs?
We are not entirely sure. II Maccabees describes a hellish scenario with high priests buying their positions, theft of Temple property, mob violence, torture, mass murder, the persecution of traditional Jews, and the profanation of the Temple, before the ultimate uprising and victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and Jewish apostates, and the cleansing of the Temple.
To a certain extent, then, it is up to us modern Jews to find a consistent meaning in all this. In 2018, Michael David Lukas wrote that the contemporary observance of Hanukah is “hypocrisy,” and the original story is a “celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence,” which is a poor candidate to compete with Christmas. He prefers to “say a prayer for the Hellenized Jews” with whom he identifies.
Lukas, like many American Jews, is pressured by the need to “feel both American and Jewish.” That is his problem. You can enjoy foods or music from multiple cultures without tension, but you can only be one person at a time. He has apparently chosen to be something he calls an “assimilated Jew.” Unfortunately, that is nothing, not fully a Jew and not fully an American.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism presented a very 21st century American approach to Hanukah in 2016, saying that “[t]he Maccabees fought the first battle for religious tolerance in history” and calling for Jews to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia, and to support Rohingya Muslims and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Jacobs is wrong about tolerance – the Maccabees were anything but tolerant. And his theology is no better than his history. He insists that he is a practicing Jew, but has (with his movement) completely redefined Judaism. Rather than a religion of mitzvot that derive from the relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel, his Judaism is an ideology of moderate Marxism, in which the “mitzvot” are political acts. I can see why that’s attractive to them, but it isn’t Judaism.
Most observant Jews note that it is a mitzvah to light Hanukah candles, which is why they do it, and they say additional prayers at the synagogue. If you ask them, they might say that Hellenization, or what is called today assimilation, is a destructive force, or even a “second Holocaust” against the Jewish people, and Hanukah teaches the need to oppose it.
Without taking sides on the difficult historical questions involved, I think there are three essential lessons to be learned from the events of 165 BCE, and worthy of contemplation at Hanukah.
One is that Jews in diaspora should be careful not to draw too close to the dominant culture, because if (when) that culture comes to be dominated by a king, dynasty, or administration that “did not know Joseph” then they may find themselves alienated both from other Jews and rejected – often violently – by the dominant culture. This is highly relevant today for Jews in America.
Another is that if Jews are committed to their Jewish identity and their right to Jewish self-determination, then they can defeat apparently stronger enemies. Nothing is more applicable to the situation of Israel today, where a zealous commitment to Zionism is needed to protect the Jewish state, which lives in a very hostile world.
And finally, there is this: if Jews do not find common ground with other Jews, they may find them among the worst enemies of Jewish self-determination. It is already too late for many Jews, who have been seduced by our deadly enemies, and now stand at the heads of their ranks.
Hanukah honors those Jews who, under great pressure, managed to stay Jewish, and fought for and won the right to self-determination. A very appropriate, very Zionist, holiday to celebrate in the State of Israel.