Why Celebrate Hanukkah?
For some, Hanukkah is just a Jewish answer to Christmas. But why do we make such a fuss of it? Isn’t it just glorifying militarism?
Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people, whether in Babylon or Jerusalem, had been allowed to continue their religious traditions unhampered — so long as they were loyal to the overriding political authority of the Persian and Greek Empires where they lived. In the third century before the Common Era, the High Priest in Jerusalem was the titular head of the Jews in Israel, while the Exilarch was the head of the Babylonian Jewish communities. Against this background, Hanukkah is a record of disfunctionality.
In Israel, the influence of Greek civilization began to change the character of the community — rather like the impact of American culture today. Most of the priests and the merchant classes were wealthy and pro-Greece. Just as today, money and politics could get you the top job. And it often did. The more rural, popular, and nationalist people supported the rabbis, who were known as the Pharisees.
In 168 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV had been humiliated. He was ordered by the emerging power of Rome to retreat. On the way home, he passed through Jerusalem and decided, whether out of pique or poor judgment, to try to force the Jews to give up their religion. He took over the Temple and desecrated it.
A small group of pious men led, by a country priest Matityahu and his five sons, decided to fight back. Yet the victory was not at all clear-cut. The Syrians did not take the insurrection seriously at first and only sent second-rate soldiers to quell it. There were a series of guerrilla wins.
Judah re-took the Temple and re-dedicated it, in 165 BCE. He celebrated the re-dedication of the Temple by emulating King Solomon’s Eight Days of ceremonies when he dedicated the first Temple, and thus the occasion was called Hanukkah HaBayit, the dedication of the House of God. But a Syrian garrison remained in the citadel in Jerusalem. In 160 BCE, Judah had to confront a serious Syrian army at Bet Zur. He was killed, his brothers fled.
A few years later, thanks to Roman pressure, the next senior Hasmonean, Jonathan, became the High Priest. Jonathan was assassinated by his own son-in-law. It was left to the last remaining brother — Simon — to become the first Maccabee High Priest and King in 142 BCE. And with a treaty with Rome, the Jews gained full independence at last.
These events are recorded in the Apocrypha Books of the Maccabees and hundreds of years later by Josephus. But there is no mention of lighting lights for eight days. The Talmud devotes a whole volume to Purim. But Hanukkah only warrants a few lines
What is Hanukkah? On the 25th of [Kislev] is Hanukkah of eight days, and one is not to fast or eulogize, only rejoice. When the Greeks entered the Temple, they desecrated the holy oil (that kept a perpetual light burning in the seven-branch Menorah). And when the House of Hasmoneans overcame them and regained the Temple, they only found enough oil to last for one day, but thanks to a miracle it lasted for eight (until they could bring fresh purified supplies). And so, they fixed these eight days for the future as days of celebration with psalms of thanks.
Why do they even have to ask what Hanukkah is? And why no mention of Judah or the Maccabees?
By the time of the Talmud, the Maccabees had become a memory of a decadent, assimilated, and corrupt dynasty. It was a period in Jewish history that hardly served as a shining example of the Jewish religious mission. After the Roman defeats, the rabbis had seen the disasters of militarism. They refused to mention Judah the Hammer.
There’s another aspect to this. We know that the rebellion was instigated by Hassidim. But we do not know for certain who the Hassidim of those days were. Certainly not the forerunners of today’s lot. We also know that alongside the kings and priests of the Biblical era, there were always prophetic and mystical sects keeping the popular flame of the Torah alive. One of the main signs of mysticism is fire.
Two and a half thousand years ago, the Jewish world was similar to our own in the competition between the state religion and the populace. Light and fire are the clues that this festival of Hanukkah was seen as the triumph of mysticism. In due course through different iterations, these informal esoteric movements coalesced into Kabbalah.
Hanukkah is the story of religious conviction and resistance, even if unfashionable. Cultural identification in the guise of Greek enlightenment was leading to a Jewish dead end. But what ultimately preserves Jewish commitment is our religious tradition. This is why the rabbis ensured that the primary message of Hanukkah would not be military victory, but spiritual survival. This is our greatest challenge today, too. Of course, we need to fight to defend ourselves when there is no alternative. But otherwise, war is not the ideal. Values are.
The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.