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Why Celebrate Chanukah?

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For some, Chanukah is just a Jewish answer to Xmas. But why do we make such a fuss of it? Isn’t it just glorifying militarism?

Two thousand, three hundred 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, Chanukah is a record of dysfunctionality.

In Israel, the influence of Greek civilization began to change the character of the community. Rather like the impact of American culture in our day. Most of the priests and the merchant classes were wealthy and pro-Greece. The urban priestly party was known as the Sadducees. Sadly, they degraded the priesthood. As today, money and politics could get you the top job. And it often did. The more rural, popular, and nationalist party supported the rabbis, who were known as the Pharisees. Externally, Israel was sandwiched between the rival powers of the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Power kept on changing between them. 

In 168 BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV having invaded Egypt 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. 

We Jews were as divided then as now. Left to our own devices we readily abandon our traditions. But let anyone try pushing us around we resist! 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 guerilla wins. But internal politics kept the main forces in Damascus where Antiochus had his own problems. 

Judah re-took the Temple and re-dedicated it, 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 Chanukat 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. 

Once again it was politics that got the next senior Hasmonean, Jonathan back, not the force of arms, in 157 BCE. A  few years later, thanks to Roman pressure, in 152 BCE he 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 there of lighting lights for eight days. The Talmud devotes a whole volume to Purim. But Chanukah only warrants a few lines 

“What is Chanukah? On the 25th of [Kislev] is Chanukah 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 Chanukah 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, the Maccabee. Although in the later daily prayers on Chanukah we do mention Mattityahu the Hasmonean, the statesman and guiding spirit who started it all. And they held the Hasmoneans responsible for allying with the Romans and giving them authority over their territory.

Three hundred years after the events the rabbis wanted to stress Chanukah as a spiritual success. To quote the prophet Zechariah (4.6 )“neither by strength not by might but through the spirit of God” are victories won. Which is the haftarah on Shabbat Chanukah.  

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. The Biblical code for mysticism was fire. Think of the Burning Bush, and Elijah’s Chariot of Fire, and Ezekiel’s vision. These movements showed all the characteristics of ecstatic, charismatic non-establishment religious life. And the rabbis of the Talmud wanted their contribution to Jewish continuity to be recognized. 

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. The organized Chief Rabbinate as opposed to Chassidic and Sephardic circles who are standard-bearers of Jewish mysticism today. Light and fire are the clues that this festival of Chanukah was seen as the triumph of mysticism. In due course through different iterations, these informal esoteric movements coalesced into the Kabbalah. And whether we are Kabbalists or not, it represents another facet of deep Jewish commitment.

Chanukah is the story of religious conviction, even if unfashionable, resisting and preserving itself. Cultural identification in the guise of Greek enlightenment was leading to a Jewish dead end. And now, as important, and valuable as cultural Judaism is for those who have no interest in religion, what ultimately preserves Jewish commitment is our religious tradition. This is why the rabbis ensured that the primary message of Chanukah 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 ideal. Values are.

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