We all know the story of Chanukah as a battle between the good guys (the Maccabees) and the bad guys (the Greeks). Of course, the good guys won, or there would be no festival for Judah Maccabee to establish in 164 BCE or any Jews to celebrate it in 2016. The strategic planning and guerrilla tactics of the Maccabean army left the Greeks for dead.
It is not until the seventh century that we are introduced by the Talmud to the story of the oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the restored Temple. The Book of Maccabees, written during the reign of Judah Maccabee’s nephew John Hyrcanus and the source of much of our knowledge about the events that took place, does not hint at any oil-related miracle at all.
The Al Hanissim prayer recited on Chanukah also fails to mention such an occurrence, as does the writings of the renowned first- century Jewish historian, Josephus.
Nevertheless, Chanukah seems to have been established as a yearly reminder of the triumph of Jewish culture over surrounding cultures.
However, if we take a look at the Chanukah story and compare it with what the historical sources say, we may see it in a slightly different, yet profound, light.
The Maccabean war turns out initially to have been a Jewish civil war, with the Hellenising Greek army brought in by one of the contending groups to aid them. The issue at hand was Hellenisation, the spread of Greek culture and language over foreign peoples.
On one side of the Jewish divide was a powerful entity primed to rid themselves of their Jewish heritage and wholeheartedly follow the common brand of Hellenism, which had already been accepted by the surrounding regions. These Hellenising Jews “removed their marks of circumcision” and “repudiated the holy covenant”.
The Maccabees, originally a meagre group of rebels, took control of the other side of the Jewish divide which included a population who were committed to the Jewish covenant and the traditions of their elders. The Maccabees turned out to be the champions but this outcome did not fully address the question of Hellenisation.
When the victorious Maccabees chose to establish the commemorative festival of Chanukah, they did something unique and unparalleled in the annals of Judaism. No previous victory in battle had been memorialised by a fixed annual observance in the Jewish calendar. The Greeks, however, always instituted a day for this type of celebration.
Furthermore, in choosing the kindling of lights as the distinguishing ritual of their victory, the Maccabees were replicating a classic Greek custom. The very observance of Chanukah, therefore, seems to involve ample Hellenistic practices. What was the “war on Hellenisation” all about then?
We need only to look at the principal texts that form the basis of rabbinic Judaism itself, the Talmud, to see how embedded is this Greek influence. The Greek language and Greek concepts entered and remained in the bastion of Jewish legal codes and rabbinic writings. Professor Jenny Labendz of Columbia University states in her book, Socratic Torah, that “despite the highly insular and self-referential nature of rabbinic Torah study, some rabbis believed that the involvement of non-Jews in rabbinic intellectual culture enriched the rabbis’ own learning and teaching.”
So was the Maccabean battle a worthless triumph? It was, indeed, the contrary.
History shows that there were two forms of “Hellenisation”. One form was characterised by the eagerness to rid oneself of Jewish identity and practice and to entirely replace it with a foreign culture; the other looked for opportunities to adopt positive foreign concepts into Jewish culture, to enhance Judaism and make it relevant to its time. The latter, we can now see, was the Hellenism of the Maccabees.
What the festival of Chanukah honours, therefore, is not a bitter battle between Jewish culture and foreign culture. Instead, it is the celebration of the victory by those who stayed true to their Judaism while incorporating valuable foreign concepts, against those who were willingly ready to abandon their Judaism for Hellenism.
In its extreme, assimilation will be pursued by individuals keen on losing any connection to Judaism in order to fully merge with the crowd. In its positive aspect, it is something that has helped shaped Judaism over the centuries and that will continue for as long as Judaism desires to remain alive and thriving.
The Maccabees weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to enhance Judaism with concepts from the surrounding culture. But it takes study, thought, and care to know where to draw the line. This is what the story of Chanukah discreetly celebrates: the victory of conscious integration over full-blown assimilation.
Sina Cohen is the author of The Jewish Position on Other Religions