The violent clash of cultures behind Chanukah's pretty lights

When we celebrate Chanukah today, we do not talk about the civil war behind the festival


If I had been around when the events of Chanukah took place, I would be confused to learn how it is celebrated in 2017. The story of Chanukah could not be described as “cute”. From the year 200 BCE the Land of Israel was part of the Seleucid Kingdom of Syria, but when a faction of radically Hellenising Jews persuaded King Antiochus to impose Greek religion on the Jews and desecrate the Temple, the Hasmoneans launched a Jewish civil war in which traditionalists fought Hellenists. 

After a series of battles, the Hasmoneans recaptured the Temple. They had to rededicate it, because it had been profaned by both Syrian Greeks and, more distressingly, by Hellenised Jews. That is why in Al Hanisim, the additional paragraph we add to some prayers on Chanukah we thank God who “delivered… the zeidim into the hands of those who labour in your Torah”. The word zeidim does not refer to Greeks, but to Jews trying to abolish Judaism.

That is why if I had seen Chanukah created, I would now be confused. The festival is the result of a bloody civil war, when Jews were forced to take up arms against other Jews to defend our traditions. It was a tragic necessity and it certainly had to be commemorated, but it is easy to understand why the rabbis made the rituals of Chanukah somewhat modest. 

The basic requirement of the Chanukah lights is just one light for each person and their household. Not one chanukiah for each family member, not one light on the first night, two on the second until eight on the last night, but just one candle night for eight nights. That is a powerful statement: we are here, we are Jewish and we are staying Jewish. But it is not an ostentatious display. It is confident but restrained.

If my first cause of confusion is that Chanukah has become so public, my second source of surprise is that Chanukah has become so tame. Despite the violent background, we bring Chanukah to presidents and prime ministers, they make speeches about light shining in the darkness, eat a doughnut and celebrate the Jewish presence in society. That is a wonderful sign of our security and the high regard in which we are held, but at the same time, given Chanukah’s origins, it is curious that those gestures are made on this festival. 

Perhaps the answer is that it takes place at holiday season and everyone has enough free time and good cheer to extend to the Jewish community as well. For our part, we do not talk about the civil war, but about the miracle of the oil which took place only after the battle for the Temple was over.

And there lies the answer, because the ones who directed attention away from the military victory of Chanukah and towards the miracle of the oil were the rabbis themselves. When the Talmud discusses Chanukah, it makes only the briefest mention of the war and moves swiftly to the story of the oil burning for eight days instead of one. The rabbis consciously turned Chanukah into a festival which was suited for Jews living in a multicultural society.

Why did the rabbis do this? It has been suggested that they disapproved of the Hasmoneans who held both the high priesthood and the kingship, contrary to Jewish law, or that they did not want to alarm the Romans with tales of Jewish warriors. I think those reasons are too superficial and that the rabbis were making a deep ideological point: the confrontation that Chanukah commemorates is not the ideal. It may sometimes be necessary, but it can never be desired. Peaceful and productive co-existence is always the goal. 

From biblical times the Israelite community contained the “stranger in the gate”, someone who was not part of the nation but lived alongside the nation. In later times, when Jews became the minority in other lands, we happily embraced new knowledge and ideas. The Talmud instructs us “if a person tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe them”. We have the revealed truth of the Torah, but truth can be accessed from other places too, in science and philosophy, even art, literature and music. We should not shun or shut out these sources. If they are incompatible with Torah then we cannot embrace them, but rejection or conflict should never be our aim.

The rabbis condemned the zeidim, the Jews who fought against Judaism, not only because they tried to suppress our sacred traditions, but also because they prevented fruitful and measured synthesis of Jewish and general wisdom. The battles of Chanukah represent not a single but a double tragedy, of religious oppression and lost opportunity for healthy interaction. Our contemporary Chanukah is not only a commemoration of the events of 2,200 years ago, but a tikkun, a correction. We are loyal to the Torah and open to the wisdom of the world. We don’t celebrate battles, we light the menorah.

Dr Elton is rabbi of The Great Synagogue, Sydney

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