Faith in a Greek world – the real story of Hanukah



As the wintertime rolls around again, the most universally celebrated Jewish holiday – Hanukah – begins. When the average Jew is asked about the historical events leading up to this beloved holiday, many will claim the classic Jewish holiday line:

“An evil nation wanted to destroy us, the Jews fought back and were victorious – there was some sort of miracle regarding oil lasting 8 days when it should have lasted one – so now we celebrate”

While this version of the story is well known, it actually could not be farther from the truth:

Hanukah is a very interesting holiday for many reasons. First off, Hanukkah is the only holiday where we have extensive extra biblical evidence, meaning it is the only Jewish holiday that we are certain actually happened historically.  Second, Hanukkah (or the book of Maccabees) is not included in the Tanakh. Third, Hanukkah is not in the Mishnah (Although a few Mishnayot mention it, they are in passing and not dealing with the holiday itself). Last, and perhaps for the aforementioned reasons, the story of Hanukkah, as we will see, is not nearly as straight forward as the other Jewish holidays.

Hannukah is classically taught as the clash between Jewish and Greek cultures.  From a young age we are taught in Jewish schools (from Orthodox to Reform) that the Greeks brought about a new and evil ideology which sought to uproot our beloved religion.  This is, however, not entirely true.

Almost everyone I know, no matter how religious, is positively affected by Greek culture. Sports, math, science, and philosophy, disciplines either created or spread by the Greeks, fill our day with joy and excitement and I for one cannot imagine living without these valuable institutions. The idea of rationalism and being able to think about the world in a logical and reasonable way was brought to the world through the Greeks. Without them there would be no modern day universities, labs, and many other aspects that we take for granted in daily life. Even Judaism would have looked vastly different if many of our great sages were not exposed to Greek philosophy.

When it comes to Hanukah many people often times imagine the Maccabees as these heroic people fighting against the evil Greeks. However, when we consider what the Maccabees actually did, our story becomes very different. First, the Maccabees actually killed many more Jews than Greeks. Any Jew that became assimilated would be given no mercy by the hands of the Maccabees. In this light the battle of Hanukah can be more accurately viewed as a Jewish civil war than a Jew versus Greek war. Furthermore, during Hasmonean rule people would actually be forcibly converted to Judaism or face death. This is perhaps the only time in all of Jewish history that we forced people to convert.  The Hasmoneans themselves were corrupt as they usurped the high priesthood, an action that many classical Jewish sources harangue them for.

When looked at in a modern light the Maccabees come across as religious fanatics trying to stop and kill anyone trying to reform their religion.  They did not accept any form of pluralism as they would attack Jews who were less “religious” than themselves. The Maccabees cannot be the classical Jewish heroes, but rather they were extremists who would stop at nothing to spread their views.  All throughout Jewish history the Maccabees have inspired people to commit atrocious acts in the name of religious fanaticism.  During the Roman siege on Jerusalem, the Zealots actually burned down storehouses of food, forcing the Jews to fight the Romans or be killed.  Inspired by the Maccabees, the Zealots did not want to have any negotiations with the “evil” Romans, but rather they wanted to fight to the death.  Even during the Bar Kochba revolt when hundreds of thousands were killed based on a false messianic pretense, Jews proudly saw themselves as the continuation of the glorious Maccabees. It seems that the message that the Maccabees have given us, has only lead to death and inter-Jewish fighting.

So what then can we learn from Hanukah? Why is this the holiday where all Jews come together and proudly light the Menorah together as a community?

I would like to suggest that classical Jewish sources have almost never viewed the Maccabean revolt as a positive story in our history. As stated earlier, the Mishnah is completely silent when it comes to Hanukah.  Many have proposed that when compiling the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah purposely excluded Hanukah so that the Maccabees would not inspire people to follow in their destructive ways.  A similar conclusion is made by many Jewish historians regarding the reasoning for the exclusion of the book of Maccabees from Tanakh.  The book of Maccabees has almost never been seen as an important book in the eyes of great Jewish thinkers. Even the Talmud, when talking about Hanukah, is absolutely silent about the entire war and only focuses on the miracle of the lights.  It seems that the story of Hanukah was truly the first act of religious censorship, although ironically the censorship was meant to hide the religious extremism in hopes of a more ecumenical mindset.

So let us follow the Talmud’s hint and focus on the lights.

As I said earlier, Greek culture is extremely valuable to our world and we would be lost without it.  I greatly appreciate the world of academia and I feel as if it has given me invaluable insights into both the scientific and religious world.  However I think that Hanukah can teach us a very important lesson about this culture.

The Greeks made one big mistake. Yes, they brought many valuable institutions to the world but they over stepped a crucial boundary.  Adding schools of philosophy and sports arenas to Jerusalem, and even turning it into a polis, may have been positive but their defiling of the temple was one step too far. They had a mentality that since they were intellectually superior to all other cultures, those cultures and religions must be ridiculed and dispensed with. The Greeks argued that in a worldview dominated by intellect and rational thought there is no room for the temple or faith.

The miracle of Hanukah is this exact fact. The Greeks did not win. The flames of faith and religion live on even in a world dominated by Greek thought. Hanukah then is not simply a story in the annals of history, but rather Hanukah is the story of everyday life.

When my neuroscience professor states that neuroscience has officially dis-proven God, this is the story of Hanukah.  When my biology professor writes as fact that morality is just an evolutionary detail without any intrinsic significance, this is the story of Hanukah. When the world of science and philosophy thinks of themselves as superior, ridiculing anyone belonging to a various religion or have any “non-rational” faith, this is the story of Hanukah. Our job as Jews is not to mimic the Maccabees, but it is to rather realize that while there is plenty of good in the Greek world of academia, they cannot destroy our temple. This is the battle of Hanukah and this is the battle worth fighting for. The lights will continue to burn and our Judaism will live on.

Happy Hanukah!

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