Hanukkah has arrived, and it's about much more than the Maccabees

Hanukkah should be a celebration of the human spirit's highest ideals, not romanticized millennia-old militarism. Photo: AP

OCALA, Fla., November 27, 2013 — The time for America’s other winter holiday has arrived, and much earlier than usual.

Most people have heard of Hanukkah, which in America is often seen as another gift-giving, end-of-year celebration to go with Christmas and Kwanzaa. Relatively few outside the Jewish community really understand it.


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Hanukkah is not a major celebration and not important to Jews as a religious holiday. Despite not being a high holy day, it garners more attention from the rest of America than any other Jewish celebration. And as with other time-honored traditions, fact and fiction have merged to form a compelling narrative about its origins.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire firmly controlled what we now call Israel. For generations, local Jews had been able to practice their religion without persecution. Despite this, King Antiochus IV opted to launch a militant campaign against Judaism. His soldiers made the Jerusalem temple a site of pagan worship and spread their beliefs throughout the land at swordpoint.

Mattahias Maccabee was the patriarch of a prominent priestly family. He and his followers lived in Modin, an agrarian town not far from Jerusalem. When Syrian-Greek authorities arrived, they demanded that he publicly adopt their religion. This would come in the form of making a sacrifice to pagan gods, something which Jews found abhorrent.

Mattathias, a theological radical, refused to comply and killed a Hellenized Jew who offered to sacrifice in his place. After Mattathias’s death, his sons, led by Judah, reacted in an especially militant fashion. The young men took up arms for an insurrection against Syrian-Greek rule. The five brothers launched a guerilla war against both the Seleucids and against Hellenized Jews.


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After a prolonged fight, the Maccabees not only defeated the Syrian-Greek forces, but reclaimed Jerusalem and its temple, which they ritually cleansed. Along the way, they attempted also to cleanse the Hellenized Jews — Jews who had assimilated to Greek norms — destroying pagan altars, forcibly circumcising the boys, and forcing Hellenized Jews to readopt their Jewish practices or flee for their lives.

What the Maccabees really wanted was not just freedom to practice their faith, but a strict Jewish society and political independence for Judea. The Seleucids sent an army to quash the Maccabbees, but with the death of Antiochus in 164 BCE, Lysias, the commander, decided that his attention had to turn to the internal politics of the empire. He concluded a peace agreement with the Maccabees that restored religious freedom.

The revolt didn’t end with the conquest of Jerusalem or the peace agreement. Judah was ultimately a military leader whose authority rested on his ability to win battles and expand the territory of Judea. When he died in battle, his brother Jonathan, who was also the High Priest, continued fighting for two more decades until he was finally captured and executed. The revolt only ended when, in 138 BCE, the declining Seleucid Empire granted Judea independence. Jonathan’s older brother, Simon, ruled until his murder by his son-in-law; the family dynasty ended a hundred years later with the rise of Herod the Great. p>

The Maccabeean revolt was, for the followers of Mattahias and his sons, a fight for liberty; for the Hellenized Jews, it was a civil war. Both sides viewed the other as intolerant, either a ruling tyranny, or rebels seeking to impose a tyranny of their own.

As for Hanukkah, it is commonly believed that the holiday extends back to the Maccabean era as a means of celebrating conquest and remembering a miracle — a single jar of pure oil, enough to sustain the lighted menorah in the cleansed temple for just a day, lasting for eight days until more pure oil could be obtained.

This again is not the entire story.

“Hanukkah originated long before the Maccabean victory,” notes the Society for Humanistic Judaism in a web article about the holiday. “Its roots lie in the primitive winter festival of lights, Nayrot. As the days grew shorter, people feared that the sun was dying and that the world would be plunged into eternal darkness and death. In an effort to coax the sun back to life, they kindled fires at the time of the solstice … Marked by gaiety and gift-giving, the celebration served to dispel the seasonal darkness and gloom.

“Although the Maccabean victory actually occurred two months before the solstice, the coupling of Hanukkah and Nayrot ensured the survival of the Maccabean celebration. Some six hundred years after the Maccabean victory, the rabbis, seeking to inject a theistic justification for a celebration the people would not abandon, linked the revelry to Yahvehs power by introducing the legend of the single flask of oil that miraculously burned in the rededicated Temple for eight days.”

Some celebrate Hanukkah by reveling in the memory of the Maccabees’ military success. Others consider the holiday from another perspective, not celebrating the warfare. How do you cheer a civil war whose victors terrorized their already oppressed coreligionists?

Hanukkah need not be a Maccabee-fest. Jews have celebrated the holiday throughout the ages as a vehicle for remembering righteous strength and courage. In a comprehensive historical sense, it has little to do with the Maccabees per se. Rather, it is a living testament to perseverance in the face of adversity and devotion to tikkun olam — repairing our broken world.

The litany of repairs is too long to list and varies from person to person. This can be said about it, though: Working for a better tomorrow should never be a call to theological particularism or fundamentalism.

We — irrespective of our religious beliefs — should embrace reason and work alongside others of good will. In the long run, that is what truly matters.

For this journalist, at least, the universalist message of Hanukkah could not be more clear.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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