First of all, please don’t get me wrong and throw stale latkes at me, but my take on Hanukkah is a bit different than most — or at least most who will say so publicly. Hanukkah is so easy to like — it has wonderfully yummy (and bad for you) food, fun games like dreidel, good music, presents and a really good story. So, what’s not to like? Well actually, quite a bit. First of all, let’s look at the party line story of Hanukkah:
The Syrian Greeks were oppressing the poor Jews who just wanted to mind their own business and worship their God as they saw fit in their Temple. But the Syrian Greeks defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and made Jews eat pork and even sacrifice a pig in the Temple. So this bold little band of freedom fighters known as the Maccabees led am impossible uprising against the Syrian Greeks and WON!!!! When it came time to purify the Temple, they only found one day of clean and pure olive oil to light the neir tamid (eternal light) and it would take eight days to get more. But, lo and behold, the light burned for the eight days until the new oil supplies got there. So they cleaned up and rededicated the Temple and everyone lived happily ever after in religious freedom. Isn’t that what we all heard as kids and what is still being taught to kids today?
I wish the answer was so easy. First, let’s debunk the miracle of the oil. It sounds good, but it is nowhere to be found in the Tanach or even the early Talmud. It wasn’t until about the 5th or 6th century CE that the story really got legs and was put in to give a religious spin to the holiday. Other miracles, like the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the finding of manna, or water from a rock are found right in Torah. The Hanukkah miracle, however, was added to give the story some gravitas. It sounds good and justifies the eight days of candle lighting, present giving and overindulging. I’m game, I like all that stuff but always keep in mind that Hanukkah is a MINOR holiday religiously — kind of like Purim (but at least that story is in the Tanach and doesn’t even mention G-d) — and would never have become important as it has if didn’t fall around the Christmas season. If it fell in February, no one would care so much (or maybe they would and have put a Valentine’s Day spin on it). The only holidays actually mentioned in the Torah are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (with Simchat Torah being the end of Sukkot), Pesach, Shavout and, of course, Shabbat.
But now we come to the tougher part of the of the recharacterized story — and that is the “religious freedom” part. We live in a country where religious freedom is highly valued — as it should be — so we want the Hanukkah story to be about good guy freedom fighters showing tyrants what it’s really all about. That really isn’t what we got here. That area of Israel/Judea had been subject to foreign occupation for many, many years. Over the years, Jews interacted with Greeks and the wealthier and urban of them became Hellenized, adopting Greek customs and mores and integrating them into their Judaism. Sound familiar to American — especially Reform — Jews? When Antiochus IV took over, he cracked down on the more traditional, rural Jews and ordered everyone to practice religion in the Hellenized manner. This did not sit well with certain factions, most rural and less wealthy. In many respects, the ensuing battle wasn’t really between the Syrian Greek occupiers and the Jews, but was a civil war between two factions of Jews. Matisyahu and his sons (the most famous being Judah) led the revolt against the Syrian Greeks and the Hellenized practices. They won, but it was a long civil war that took years and not just one battle. Because of the victory and ensuing political wrangling, Matisyahu’s descendants — the Hasmoneans — took over as High Priest and later as King as well. But they did not believe in religious freedom any more than the Syrian Greeks did. They forced Hellenized Jews and neighboring Gentiles to adopt their worship practice or be put to death. Many of the wealthier, more educated Hellenized Jews of Jerusalem fled for Alexandria where they could thrive and do what they wanted. The Hasoneans were essentially the Israeli Haredi of today using Taliban or Al Qaeda tactics. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s true. They made the divisions between Jews even worse and set the stage for the Roman occupation and the chaos that ensued. I will even go so far as to say that their repressive practices set the stage for the rise of radical Jews like Jesus. If things had been more peaceful, who knows what today’s religious landscape would look like, but we might not even have Christianity as we know it if the Hasmoneans had been what we portray them to be — lovers of freedom and justice.
It’s really hard to argue the historical facts. You can go to primary sources like Josephus and this is what you will get. I know people have issues with Josephus but he was a historian if nothing else. So the question facing us is how do we spin this story about pretty nasty people into something good. I think what we should be doing is explaining that both sides were fighting for what they thought was right. What Matisyahu and his sons were able to do is to rally a revolt from the people and not from the politicians. I think that is the story of Hanukkah. The people can institute change and that is what happened here. We’ve seen it in the past and we see it today. Rather than talking about freedom and tolerance, let’s talk about our ability to bring about change. We can then say we hope that this change will always be for good and that is our hope.
Maybe I’m too much of a realist who appreciates historical accuracy. I will light my Hanukkiah, post songs about Hanukkah, play dreidel, and eat my latkes, sufganiyot and churros but I will do so knowing that I am celebrating an imperfect holiday and that I must strive to achieve the goals that we wish that story of Hanukkah really did stand for. I wish you all a joyous and light filled Hanukkah — may your candles never burn low!!!
Denise J. Karlin