I wrote this “Hanukkah Q&A” ten years ago for a web course on Judaism. Things have changed a lot since then, in the world and in myself. Back then I didn’t identify religiously, as I do today, as a Unitarian Universalist of Jewish heritage. But when I wrote, “there’s no holy book, ours or anyone else’s, in which the truth is frozen to keep it eternally fresh … there’s always something we can learn from people who don’t see things the way we do”–that was a very UU thought. All Scriptures contain truth; none is truth.
So some of what follows will sound a little dated, as we celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah 2012. But I think its essential point remains as valid as when I wrote it. And when you read it you’ll understand what I mean when I dedicate it to peace, to understanding, and to one of the great heroes of our time–Malala Yousufzai.
What is Hanukkah?
Most essentially, it’s the Independence Day of an ancient Jewish kingdom that was established in Palestine about 140 BCE. We call this kingdom the “Hasmonean state,” and it came about as the result of something called the “Maccabean revolt“–a revolt by the Jews of Palestine, led by a group of guerrilla fighters called the Maccabees, against the Syrian Greeks who until then had been ruling Palestine. When the Maccabees succeeded in getting Jewish independence, they invented for the Jewish calendar a new holiday to celebrate their triumph. That holiday is Hanukkah.
What ever happened to this “Hasmonean state”? It doesn’t still exist, does it?
No. It was swallowed up by the Roman Empire in 63 BCE.
By “BCE” you mean the same thing as “BC”, right?
Yes. It stands for “Before the Common Era,” a bit more religiously neutral than “Before Christ.” But functionally they’re the same.
So what you’re telling me is that Jews are still celebrating the Independence Day of a country that hasn’t existed for more than 2000 years?
Why do they do that?
Because Hanukkah, like Judaism itself, has been transformed in some very basic ways during those 2000 years. It now serves American Jews as a very useful and encouraging emblem of how we can become part of the culture around us–which is the culture of our country, after all–and still keep a sense of our spiritual independence and integrity. It also doesn’t hurt that now, for the first time since the end of the Hasmonean kingdom in 63 BCE, there is again an independent Jewish state in Palestine–the State of Israel, which got its independence in 1948–so Jewish national independence is a very up-to-date issue.
Becoming part of American culture and still keeping your independence and integrity–I assume you’re going to explain in more detail what you mean by that?
Yes, I am.
But before we get into that, what is the story of Hanukkah?
The story … Well, once upon a time there was a wicked Greek king named Antiochus. He persecuted the Jews fiercely and cruelly, and tried to force them to give up their Judaism and adopt Greek ways. Some of the Jews gave in, but others resisted. One of these resisters was a Jewish priest named Mattathias, who had five sons. After Mattathias died resisting the Greeks, his son Judah the Maccabee (or Judas Maccabeus, to use the Greek form of the name) became the leader of the revolt. Judah won some very dramatic victories against much larger Greek armies, and eventually liberated Jerusalem and purified the Jewish Temple, which the Greeks had polluted with their pagan rituals.
As part of the purification of the Temple, Judah and his followers (the Maccabees) wanted to re-light the Temple’s lamps. Unfortunately, only a small quantity of pure oil remained for them to do that with. By a miracle the little bit of oil, which should have lasted only one day, burned for eight full days. That’s why we commemorate the miracle each year on the eight days of Hanukkah, burning one candle on the first night, two candles the second, and so forth, until the Hanukkah candelabrum (the menorah) burns with eight lights on the eighth night of Hanukkah. (Plus an extra candle, usually in the middle, that is used to light the other eight.)
Did this really happen? Or is it just a legend?
The part about the miraculous oil is a legend. The rest of the story is mostly true, although it focuses only on the beginning of the revolt and the recapture of the Jerusalem Temple (in December, 164 BCE). Nobody wants to talk about the next 24 years of fighting and politicking, often sordid and usually brutal, that had to happen before the Hasmonean state got its independence. Also, the story as I’ve told it is heavily partisan. The Maccabees are the good guys, the valiant heroes; Antiochus is the bad guy, who persecutes Judaism out of pure malevolence. The historical reality wasn’t anywhere near that simple.
And some of its complications were … ?
To begin with, we now think of the Maccabees as fighters for religious freedom. Which they were. But only for the freedom to practice Judaism as they understood it, which was a fiercely fundamentalist kind of Judaism. Other kinds of Judaism, not to mention other religions, got no freedom at all.
One of our ancient sources on the Maccabean revolt says, in praise of the Maccabees, that they “struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath … and forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the borders of Israel” (I Maccabees 2:44-46). Who were the “sinners” and the “lawless men”? It turns out they were the people we call the “Hellenized Jews”–the Jews whose idea of Judaism went beyond Biblical fundamentalism, who tried to create a synthesis between the insights of Judaism and those of the Greek culture (“Hellenism”) that was sweeping the world in those days. The Maccabees hated Jews like that. Wherever they could, they eliminated them and their ideas.
And that business of circumcising people by force …
Not pleasant reading.
You know who these Maccabees remind me of? The Taliban, more than anything else! I hope I didn’t offend you by saying that.
No, you didn’t. I think it’s a reasonable comparison. Like the Taliban, the Maccabees were representives of a traditional society facing a world culture that had a lot to offer that society, but also threatened to shake up its traditions. The Hellenized Jews whom the Maccabees fought remind me of the Muslims today who try to read the Qur’an in such a way as to make Islam part of the modern world, rather than a backward force resisting the modern world. What these Muslims try to do with the Qur’an, the Hellenized Jews tried to do with the Torah. And I must say my sympathies are with the Hellenized Jews.
So there were really three sides in the conflict behind the Hanukkah story, and not just two?
Yes, indeed. There were the Syrian Greeks, there were the Maccabees, and then there were the Hellenized Jews. The Hellenized Jews tried to understand their Judaism in such a way as to open a window to the culture of the Greeks. But then the Greeks went too far, and under Antiochus IV they actually tried to stamp out Judaism, while the Hellenized Jews were trying to reform Judaism. Nobody knows just why Antiochus did that, actually. It was very rare, in the ancient world, to try to persecute other people’s religions. Whatever his reasons were, Antiochus’s persecution of Judaism was a fairly crazy policy. It soon blew up in his face when the Jews decided they weren’t going to sit still for it. Unfortunately the Hellenized Jews got blown up in the explosion.
So what happened to the Hellenized Jews, when the Maccabees got the power?
The sources don’t tell us. The Maccabees won the struggle, and it’s their historians who wrote those books that survive.
It would be sort of like if the Taliban got back into power in Afghanistan.
I imagine so. The Maccabees, like the Taliban, were not nice people. And they were more than a little fanatical. Which is not to say the Hellenized Jews were always angels: they weren’t. But I think they were on the right track, and it’s a pity their path came to an end with the Maccabean revolt.
So why is Hanukkah a celebration? It sounds like more of a tragedy! Religious fundamentalists take over, stamp out all non-fundamentalist ideas … Ugh!
Yes, I’d agree with you, if Jewish history had stopped in the second century BCE. But it didn’t. The second century BCE was the first time Judaism came into contact with an overwhelmingly attractive outside culture. But it was very far from being the last time this happened. In the eighteenth century CE–that’s the same thing as “AD”–Judaism met a new kind of “Hellenism,” in the form of Western culture. Like the ancient Hellenism, this modern “Hellenism” invited the Jews to join it, not at the cost of giving up their Judaism but at the cost of rethinking their Judaism. And this time we went for it! That’s why Judaism is today part of Western culture, part of the American scene.
In the second century BCE the Hellenized Jews were defeated and destroyed. But over the past three centuries their spiritual successors–the Jews who want to see Judaism change and adapt, who are open to the outside world–have succeeded. And I think we’re all better off for that.
Would all Jews agree with you?
There isn’t anything all Jews would agree on. But I think most Jews, here and in Israel, would at least be open to the ideas I’ve expressed to you. I think most of us realize that there’s no holy book, ours or anyone else’s, in which the truth is frozen to keep it eternally fresh; and that there’s always something we can learn from people who don’t see things the way we do.
I have to say, also, that although I don’t agree with the Maccabees and I don’t much like them, I can’t blame them for being as they were. To learn how to be yourself and still be open to others–that’s not an easy trick, for an individual or for a culture. It requires considerable balancing, considerable acceptance of ambiguity. No wonder we Jews didn’t do it perfectly, first time around. We’re not doing it perfectly today. But I think we’re doing it better.
So is there a new Hanukkah, to celebrate this new slant on Judaism?
Yes, there is, but it’s celebrated at the exact same time as the old one and with many of the same rituals. We still light the candles in the menorah, still sing songs about the Maccabees and the ancient miracle of the renewal of the Temple. But we also do new things, like give Hanukkah presents that look exactly like Christmas presents, send Hanukkah cards that look very much like Christmas cards, bake Hanukkah cookies that taste just like Christmas cookies, only they’re cut into shapes like the menorah or the Star of David … It’s our way of saying that we’re people just like the people around us, sharing in their joys, celebrating the renewal of the sun’s light at the same time they do, and in the same ways they do. I think that’s one of the meanings of the lighting of the Hanukkah candles–first one, then two, then finally eight–as if to say that even in the darkest time of the year the light is starting to come back.
That “return-of-the-light” business sounds very pagan, very like nature-worship. Like something the ancient Greeks would have done.
Yes, doesn’t it? We’re human beings like everybody else–ancient Greeks, modern Christians, you name it. Yet we also have our own cultural separateness, as Jews, which won’t disappear and which we don’t want to disappear. When we tell the story of the ancient Hanukkah, and remember the heroism of the Maccabees and forget their fanaticism, we honor that impulse toward separateness. And when we go out and buy Hallmark Hanukkah cards we honor the opposite impulse, toward togetherness, toward being the same as our fellow-Americans and fellow-humans.
Both impulses are authentic, and both are necessary. And Hanukkah is an emblem of how they can be synthesized. And that’s why Hanukkah is such an important festival for Jews today.
Let me go back a little bit. You spoke about the “sources” for the Hanukkah story. Where are these sources? Is Hanukkah mentioned in the Bible?
Depends on which Bible you mean. It’s not mentioned in the Jewish Bible; that is, in the Hebrew books that Jews call the “Tanakh” and Christians call the “Old Testament.” It is mentioned once in the New Testament. John 10:22 calls it “the feast of the Dedication.” That means, of course, Judah the Maccabee’s dedication of the purified Temple.
But the full story of Hanukkah is in two books called “First and Second Maccabees,” which are part of the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient Jewish books preserved in the Greek language–
So the Maccabees fought against the Greeks, yet their story is told in the Greek language? What an irony!
Isn’t it? But there’s something more. For the Catholic Church, most of the books of the Apocrypha are holy Scripture, just like the rest of the Old Testament. So the full story of Hanukkah is not in the Jewish Bible, not in the Protestant Bible, but it’s there in “First and Second Maccabees,” in the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible.
So if it weren’t for the Catholic Church, we might not know the story of Hanukkah?
Probably not. It’s an interesting question why the rabbis who canonized the Jewish Bible left out the Books of the Maccabees. It appears that the story of the Maccabees made the ancient rabbis uneasy, although not quite for the same reasons it makes me uneasy. But the effect was that for centuries Jews had only a vague and garbled idea of the story behind Hanukkah, even while they continued to observe the holiday and to light the menorah. When at last they wanted to know the real story, they had to turn to the ancient Jewish books they had forgotten about, but which had been preserved through the centuries by the Catholic Church.
Irony! More irony!
There are plenty of ironies in the Hanukkah story, aren’t there?
You know what it sounds like to me? It sounds like the real Hanukkah story is the story of how Judaism is interwoven with the other cultures and religions of the world–how it sometimes fights them, sometimes becomes part of them. Sometimes it does both at the same time!
Not a bad way to put it.
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