• Rabbi Marc Kraus

Hanukkah: Civil War

You remember the old story, right? The evil Syrian Greeks sought to destroy Judaism by outlawing the practice of the mitzvot. The valiant Maccabees fought back and won a great victory, recapturing Jerusalem and rededicating the holy temple. Miraculously a single jar of oil burned for eight days, confirming God's hand in saving the Jewish people.

The real story of Hanukkah is very different. In every part of their empire, the Syrian Greeks promoted religious freedom alongside Helenistic culture, because happy productive subjects generate good tax revenue. What went wrong then in Judah? We're missing an important part of the story: This was a Jewish civil war.

The Syrian Greeks promoted a universal culture that included education, philosophy and physical health. In each of their provinces, this universal culture melded with the local religious culture to produce a hybrid. This is precisely what happened in Judah. Many Jews wanted to integrate the best of secular culture with their ancient religious heritage [1]. The civil war began when zealous Jews, who opposed any compromise with Greek culture, began a violent campaign to kill or intimidate those who suggested compromise [2]. The Jews who favored compromise called the authorities to their aid and as the Syrian Greek forces cracked down on the zealots they eventually lost patience and cracked down on traditional Jewish practices too.

Today we live in a society more polarized than ever before. We reduce each other to political labels (“Well that’s because she’s a Democrat/Republican”) and we pounce on sensationalized stories that demonize those we disagree with, to the detriment of the facts and the complex bigger picture. We’ve lost our desire to empathize and try to understand those we disagree with, and as a result, we’ve become lesser people. If the real Hanukkah story teaches us anything, it is that when we see the world in black and white, things inevitably spin out of control and everyone loses.

The early rabbis did not like the militaristic tone of Hanukkah, and in their earliest textbook of Jewish practice, it is not even mentioned. Instead, these early rabbis were role models of constructive conflict, always open to multiple perspectives, and teaching positions they disagreed with before their own.

There are two detailed historical sources that describe the Hanukkah story written within a few decades of the war. What is especially strange is that neither source mentions the “miracle of the oil lasting eight days.” That story is first told by the rabbis of Babylonia, at least six centuries later.

These rabbis transformed Hanukkah into a solstice festival of lights. [3] When the days are darkest the candles dance brightest. Yet, there is never just light and dark or black and white, but a world illuminated by the Menorah in countless shades.

Perhaps when we are ready to see our fellow human beings in all their complex colors and tones, ready to stand in their shoes and see through their eyes, we will have truly understood the most complex lesson that Hanukkah teaches us: No human being can be reduced to a label.

Wishing you light and joy,

Hanukkah sameah!

[1] Elias Bickerman, God of the Maccabees (1937) , argues that the Hellenizers were monotheistic universalists who strove to reform Judaism by removing the practice of certain mitzvot that seemed to separate Jews from others. According to Bickerman, Antiochus’ intervention was at a late stage in an internal Jewish conflict.

[2] Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959), argues that there was a military conflict underway between the Hellenizers and Traditionalists, into which Antiochus intervened. He claims that the idol installed in the temple was actually placed there by the Syrian garrison in the Akra for their own personal use, not just to upset the traditionalists.

[3] Although Josephus does mention Hanukkah as a “festival of lights” at the end of the first century Antiquities 12.7.6-7 316-325.

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