Behind the spinning dreidels, holiday presents, and other “kiddy” traditions of Hanukkah lies a story of acculturation, civil war, zealotry, and tyranny. In a 2005 article, reprinted below, James Ponet explores the historical context of Hanukkah and casts the holiday in a new light.
While Jewish children, one way or another, manage to acquire insight into somber holidays like Yom Kippur, Jewish parents tend to assume that they have nothing to learn from kiddy celebrations. As a result the “minor” holidays of Purim and Hanukkah escape scrutiny, like lullabies whose sweet melodies drown out disturbing lyrics. Many a community knows how to use children as shields against confrontation with its own darker truths. I can think of no better illustration of this strategy than our current ways of marking Hanukkah. For it turns out that Hanukkah is a festival built upon a mound of suppressed memories and censored texts, a putative celebration of light that in fact commemorates a Jewish civil war.
The Hanukkah story is unremarked in the Hebrew Bible and barely referenced in the Talmud. Instead, it is recorded in books that were banished from the biblical canon by third-century rabbinic authorities and exiled, as the Books of the Maccabees, to the Apocrypha. That collection, which takes its name from the Greek “hidden away” or “secret,” is mostly made up of Jewish writings in Greek—novels, sermons, histories, prophecies. The original story of Hanukkah, then, is the literary expression of a people that had deeply absorbed the language, thought, and values of Hellenistic civilization.
There are a number of reasons why rabbinic Judaism abandoned these texts. In the aftermath of the devastating losses inflicted by Rome on the Jews of Judea—beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., more than 200 years after the time of the Maccabees—the rabbis wanted to shape an inward-looking Judaism. They chose to portray the Jews as a historically small, proud, self-isolating people (think today’s Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans), ready to martyr themselves in the battle against tyranny, a people capable of sustained spiritual resistance to foreign domination. The rabbis recast the Hanukkah story to match that self-image. They emphasized God’s intervention on behalf of the Jews who’d been forced by the Greek Syrian King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, publicly to violate Jewish law in 168 B.C.E. The Jews revolted, led by Mattathias, an elder in the Hasmonean family of priests, and his sons, the eldest of whom was Judah the Maccabee. With God’s help, they succeeded in capturing the defiled Temple and rededicating it four years later.
Read in its historical context, however, the Hanukkah story is really about a revolt against the Hellenized Jews who had fallen madly in love with the sophisticated, globalizing superculture of their day. The Apocrypha’s texts make it clear that the battle against Hellenization was in fact a kulturkampf among the Jews themselves. Here is how the first Book of the Maccabees describes Jerusalem on the eve of civil war and revolt in the time of Antiochus (translation by Nicholas de Lange):
At that time there were some evil-doers in Israel who tried to win popularity for a policy of integration with the surrounding nations. It was because the Jews had kept themselves aloof for so long, they claimed, that so many hardships had befallen them. They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life. They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.
Uncircumcision as the price of admission to the Jerusalem gym ! When they were eight days old, the “sign of the covenant” had been carved in their flesh; now as young men, these Jews risked health and sacrificed sexual pleasure to “become one flesh” with the regnant beauty culture. In Judea, then, there were Jews choosing to die rather than publicly profane Jewish law—and there were Jews risking death to free themselves from the parochial constraints of that law. The historic Jewish passion to merge and disappear confronted the attested Jewish will to stand apart and persist.
That’s the clash of Hanukkah. Armed Hasmonean priests and their comrades from the rural town ofModi’in attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek reform, like the gymnasium and new rules for governing commerce. The Hasmoneans imposed, at sword’s edge, traditional observance. After years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule.
So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew. The rabbis drummed out this history with a fairy tale about a light that did not go out. But really, who can blame them—after all, what nation creates a living monument to a civil war?
And in a sense, the rabbis weren’t entirely wrong. TheJews at once succumbed to Greek civilization, forcefully resisted it, and were transformed by it. Key words of Jewish self-understanding are still carried by Greek in the collective memory: synagogue, diaspora, Sanhedrin (the Rabbinic high court), and the very term Judaism. Yet the Jews somehow became Greek without ceasing to be Jews, even as light—the holiday’s metaphor—somehow becomes matter without ceasing to be energy.
Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.
But the question remains. Was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity? The Hasmonean state, originally a bulwark against Greek dominance, eventually declined into a petty Hellenist tyranny barely distinguishable from other military-political entities in the Middle East at the time. Memory of the Maccabean era of war and autonomy inspired the Jewish zealots of 67 to 73 C.E. who led the costly losing struggle against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Maccabean memory also fueled the messianic hopes of Rabbi Akiva and his followers, who backed the quixotic revolt of the warrior Shimon Bar Kochba, which Rome bloodily smashed in 135.
Today, the Maccabean memory has been resurrected in the modern state of Israel in the image of Jew as warrior, and Hanukkah is celebrated by many as a military holiday, the vestige of an ancient Independence Day. But I propose that on Hanukkah, we ought to consider whether an ethnic group that wishes to survive must turn itself into a nation-state. In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba debacle, at Hanukkah the words of the prophet Zachariah were read in the synagogue: “Not by power nor by might but through My spirit, says the Lord.” In the glow of the candles this year we should wonder aloud whether the prophet’s vision is but balm for losers or whether the international system may yet generate a new way for groups to be both part of the world and apart from it. Here is the hard question that an adult celebration of Hanukkah can bring into deliberate focus.