Hanukkah: A ‘Stiff Necked’ People — the Fight for Sovereignty and Against Assimilation
Hanukkah is not just about gifts, latkes, jelly-filled donuts (sufganyot), and dreidels — though they are certainly nice (and fun).
At its core, Hanukkah is the story of a battle for the heart and soul of a conquered and colonized people — of the clash between the dominant Greek/Hellenist culture of the time on the one hand, and the culture and essential identity of the Jewish people on the other.
More than 2,200 years ago, the differences between these two cultures and value systems were quite stark. The Greek/Hellenist culture worshiped physical beauty. They placed a principle value on the here and now — on personal gratification. Jewish values were the opposite. For the Jewish people, the spiritual, not the physical, was first and foremost.
After Judea fell to Hellenist colonialism, as often occurs within societies and peoples conquered by large expanding empires, there was an internal struggle in Judea between traditional Jews and those who did not entirely dissent from the Hellenists’ prohibitions on Jewish worship and culture, and in fact wished to succumb to Hellenism. Many Jews back then became, in effect, self-hating Jews, and wished to adopt Hellenism entirely.
Hanukkah, therefore, is as much a celebration of the Jewish people’s success in ridding Judea of the colonialists — who sought, like many colonialists that followed in their footsteps (be they Roman, Arab, Crusader, etc.), to impose their culture and/or faith on the people of Judea — as it is a celebration of the incredible perseverance of the Jewish people.
As Mark Twain noted in his short essay Concerning the Jews:
All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. … The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. … If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
These words ring even truer today — 73 years after the Holocaust and 70 years after the Jewish people regained their sovereignty in their indigenous, historical, and religious homeland — than they did when Mark Twain wrote them in 1898 from Vienna.
The Jewish people’s long-standing resistance to both colonialism and assimilation, and the miracle that is the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years, arguably started with Hanukkah.
The Hanukkah miracle itself, the one day’s worth of oil that instead lasted eight days, tells a story of survival against all odds, which like the Jewish people’s 3,300-year-old and (B”H) counting story of survival, is miraculous. Many nations, tribes, and people have come and gone since the Jewish people first introduced ethical monotheism to the world. Unlike the Moabites, Phoenicians, Philistines, Amorites, etc., the Jewish people remain.
Hanukkah, and the miracle of the oil — as exemplified by the Hanukkah lights — should serve as a bright, shiny reminder of the Jewish people’s mission, of our resilience, and why we, as Mark Twain noted, continue to survive and contribute to the world in ways far exceeding our number, after all civilizations and cultures that were conquered by the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans have long since vanished from the world.
Because such a large part of the Hanukkah story is our resistance to not only tyranny, but also to the temptation of Hellenism and assimilation, the mitzvah of celebrating Hanukkah not only requires us to celebrate the holiday, but to publicize our celebration. This is the reason that whenever possible Jews are to light the menorah outdoors, and when lighting the candles indoors, we are supposed to put the menorah by a window facing the street, so that all those who walk by will know there are Jews celebrating Hanukkah in that home.
At a time when antisemitic attacks are on the rise in both the US and Europe, and Jews throughout Europe have attested to feeling like they have to hide their identity, the need to publicly and proudly celebrate being Jewish and Jewish sovereignty and self-determination could not be greater.
When Judea was occupied by the Hellenists there were quite a few Jews who were ready to abandon our tribal faith because the Seleucid Greeks had made them ashamed of their identity. These Jews had internalized the hatred the Hellenists had for their indigenous faith and culture. They had a colonized mentality, and as a result were embarrassed and/or afraid to be openly Jewish.
But the Maccabees, just like the Haganah and the IDF did over 2,000 years later (and sometimes arguably just as miraculously), taught the entire Jewish world the importance of Jewish pride — the importance of being a “stiff necked Jew,” a Jew who refuses to bow down to tyrants and despots, including those who on the eve of Hanukkah this year passed more “flat earth” resolutions at the UN General Assembly dishonestly denying the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of the Maccabees.
That is the lesson of Hanukkah: To proudly defy those who want the Jewish people to disappear into the dustbin of history.
Micha Danzig served in the Israeli Army and is a former police officer with the NYPD. He is currently an attorney and is very active with numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Stand With Us, T.E.A.M., and the FIDF.