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Chanukah: When We Lost And They Won

by Peter Walters

Remember Chanukah – dreidels, chocolate coins, latkes, lamp-lighting, all that stuff? Great wasn’t it? One of the really great things about Chanukah is that it’s almost as good as Christmas, but without the whole goy-guilt.

Remember how it was put: the time when the few defeated the many; the small beat the great; a handful of yeshivah bochurim and Kohanim defeated the whole Greek army. The nasty goyim tried to stamp out our religion and desecrated our Temple; but God performed a miracle for us and provided oil for the menorah – so now we light the Chanukiah for eight nights to publicize the miracle. Chanukah doesn’t have any fasting, like Yom Kippur, or any crazy cleaning like Pesach, and we don’t even have to build a shack to live in. All in all, Chanukah is a very feel-good festival. It even helps us feel better about Christmas.

However, there is another side to Chanukah. The Rabbis of the Talmud were more diffident than is their norm when describing Chanukah, and with good reason. Jews are very attached to their status as a victimized minority, so winning battles (at least since the time of Yehoshua) hasn’t sat very easily with our self-image. And I’m sorry to say, it gets much worse.

We are given to understand that Chanukah is a war of liberation against the Greek-Syrian forces under King Antiochus Epiphanes. But, sadly, it really wasn’t. It was a civil war, with Jew fighting against Jew, until King Antiochus intervened on one side.  The first person killed by our hero Mattityahu, was a Jew. It was not only a political struggle, it was preeminently a cultural and religious struggle between Jews who saw themselves as part of the wider Mediterranean world of Greek culture, of religious tolerance, of secular education and science; against religious extremists who wanted to keep Judaism and Jewish culture exclusive, narrow, intolerant and ignorant of the wider world. The Maccabees were the Islamic State of their day, killing any Jew whom they suspected of deviating from their own version of fundamentalist Judaism.

Rather than possessing an irrational hatred of God-given Jewish religious practices, Antiochus was, as was normal at the time, very tolerant of all the many religions in his kingdom. And the leader of the Hellenising party in Israel was none other than the Kohen Gadol (high priest) – who rejoiced in the Greek name of Jason. He presided over the opening of a Greek-style gymnasium in Jerusalem, and many of the Kohanim enjoyed wrestling and bathing after a hard day’s korbanot (sacrifices).

The Jewish diaspora was very numerous even then, and, although still religious, was overwhelmingly Greek in culture. Jews were doing very well for themselves as part of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, thank you, and they were happy to leave being meshuggeh frum to the peasants back in the middle of nowhere.

Well, it couldn’t last, could it? The traditionalists tried to take over and oust the Kohen Gadol, putting one of their own choosing in place. King Antiochus, hitherto happy to let the Jews get on with things themselves, had to intervene to prevent what had become a civil war from getting even more out of hand. And we all know the rest: eventually the fundamentalists won and set up their own priesthood and government, outlawing Greek-style practices.

Think for a moment what it’s like for the fundamentalists to win. Think of Iran when the Islamic revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Think of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Think what it would be like if Islamic State won. That’s what happened to Israel as a result of Chanukah.

Of course it backfired. The fundamentalists invited the Romans in to help them, which was rather like inviting a wolf to guard your sheep. Then they took over Edom and forcibly converted its population to Judaism; which came back to haunt them because King Herod was an Idumean descended from such converts. After another battle a few years later with the Syrian Greeks, there was another civil war, this time between the Maccabees and the Pharisees. Finally the Romans, again on the pretext of coming in to help, took over Israel and ended any real independence.

Very interesting, but so much for history – what does all this mean for us?

At Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the fanatics, the fundamentalists and the extremists over the forces of education, internationalism and tolerance. Rather than being a festival of light, it is about extinguishing light in favor of darkness. For those of us who have left the Charedi world with its own intolerant fundamentalism, and have boldly stepped into the world of secular learning, scientific thinking, respect for others and tolerance of others’ views, Chanukah is no celebration. It is a disaster. Make no mistake: if Mattityahu and Yehuda the Maccabee were here now, we would be the first up against the wall.

Think of that when you are munching your latkes.

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