It’s that time of year again. The time of year when Hanukkah lights go up to compete with their Christmas neighbors, and Jewish children are comforted with eight days of presents in contrast to the one day orgy of Christmas materialism.
No, Hanukkah does not celebrate the “miracle” of the Temple lamps burning for eight days. That is just one story, probably added much later, and of dubious authenticity. Hanukkah is not really even a religious holiday. Rather, it commemorates a military victory of the Maccabean Jews.
I grew up regarding the Maccabees as noble guerrilla fighters against imperialist oppression — a sort of ancient version of the Viet Cong of my time. I would play Judas Maccabee with a plastic sword, bravely fighting the Greek oppressors. But like the Viet Cong, my romanticized version of the Maccabees was different from the reality. Studying historical sources closer to the time, including Josephus, it seems the Maccabees may be closer to our modern Taliban or Isis — fanatical and violent religious fundamentalists.
First, some context. The events of Hanukkah took place during the interregnum between the Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, approximately 164 BCE. Alexander had been welcomed into Jerusalem, and in return, he promised tolerance and respect for the local religion. When Alexander died, his empire was split between his generals. Judea went back and forth between the Ptolemaic (based in Egypt) and Seleucid (based in Syria) divisions of Alexander’s original empire.
While Alexander and his successors were preoccupied with power and money, they could care less about religion. Throughout the Empire and its divisions, a variety of religious practices were tolerated and co-existed, as long as they paid their tribute. Even there, Alexander compromised by allowing the Jews to forego tribute on the Sabbatical Year, when the fields were left fallow. So the Hanukkah narrative I was taught, of religious oppression of the Jews by Greeks, is not the whole truth.
What was really going on was a civil war among the Jews. The public face was a dispute between the Hellenized Jews who wanted to assimilate into Greek culture, and the fundamentalist Maccabees who sought to impose their version of Judaism on everyone else. Behind the rhetoric were individuals competing for the power and wealth of the High Priesthood. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings intervened on one side or the other, to suit their own purposes.
The first casualty of this war we celebrate was a Jew killed by another Jew. Mattathias, aka Matityahu, one of the competing High Priests, killed a Jew who made a pagan sacrifice. This started the war which Mattathias’ son Judas Maccabee completed. Thereafter, Jew killed Jew, along with outsiders, in a dispute foreshadowing the Sunni — Shiite massacres of today.
When Judas finally marched his army into Jerusalem, he found it deserted, and the Temple defiled. What we celebrate as Hanukkah is the celebration declared by Judas after the mess was cleaned up and the Temple rededicated. [1Maccabees 52–59].
The Hasmonean Dynasty founded by Judas Maccabee was marked by strife and corruption which would make Game of Thrones appear tame. The dynasty ended as it begun, by internal strife. Brothers Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II made competing claims to the High Priesthood, and both appealed to the Roman Republic to intervene and settle the power struggle on their behalf. Rome obliged by massacring thousands in order to take Jerusalem and annex all of Judea.
Despite my disparaging of the Maccabees and their legacy, I still observe Hanukkah. Like all the other Winter Solstice holidays, it is a time of light breaking the darkness, hope shining through despair. At the end of this year of 2020 in particular, the description of Josephus is particularly apt:
“And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.”
[Josephus, Jewish Antiquities § 12.7.7, ¶ 323]
After years of darkness in this country, after a disease which took hundreds of thousands from us, “liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us” and we have an opportunity to restore the light of reason. Let us kindle the Lights; let us shine those lights on the darkness of ignorance and hate. But this time, instead of tearing each other apart with strife, let us join together for our common interest.
Shalom — One Love
NOTES ON PHOTOS
(1) This menorah is a family heirloom with a history. It was a wedding present from my grandparents (the anarchists on my Mother’s side) to my parents. Originally it was silver. My grandfather (the orthodox plumber on my father’s side) thought that it would last better if it was chromed. So today, it combines the diverse aspects of our family. What is most important is that it shines a light into the darkness.
(2) Another family tradition, which I started in 1975. On the first day of the year, we climb up to a local peak, to witness the sun rise on a New Year. A reminder that, whatever else we are obsessed with, the Earth still turns and the Sun still shines.