Chanukah, and the other holyday
So everything is ready for Chanukah. Before Chanukah begins, I would like you to consider another holiday. I know more than one month has passed, so perhaps you’ve forgotten. Let me help you; the last holiday we celebrated was Sukkot. Hold on now to the thought of Sukkot while I explain what Chanukah is about.
On Chanukah, we celebrate the re-consecration of the Jerusalem Temple after the defeat of the Hellenised Jews. We celebrate the victory of Hasmoneans, Jews loyal to their heritage, over the Hellenised Jews.
The agenda of Hellenised Jews was not a tiny thing. They wanted to make Judaism a faith acceptable to Hellenistic standards. They tried to bring Judaism in line with the Hellenistic worldview. They wanted to eliminate those practices that set apart the Jews from the rest of the world. Hellenist Jews wanted to get rid of Shabbat because, for the Hellenists, it was inconceivable that even slaves could benefit, every week, from a full day of rest. Hellenised Jews were urban and affluent. To them, this business of the slaves’ rest was a financial loss.
Hellenist Jews wanted to get rid of circumcision because altering the male genitalia was against the Hellenistic standard of morality. Males ran the Hellenistic world. In the Hellenistic world, women exist only as objects for the male’s satisfaction. The same for slaves. And to a certain extent, for children, too. The male body was the Hellenistic idea of perfect beauty. You don’t damage perfection.
The Hellenistic ethics, the Hellenistic civilisation, is the opposite of Judaism. You can try all the possible compromises, but as a bottom line, the two cannot mix. The Hellenists worshipped nature, while we Jews worship God.
For all its remarkable artistic and philosophical achievements, and there are many, the Hellenistic culture was about one thing: accepting nature as it is. Think about it. All the Greek gods and divinities, who were popularised during the Hellenistic time, are personifications of natural forces or natural impulses. Aelous, God of wind. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was, of course, an attractive woman. In the Hellenistic world, love was not for the senior. In other words, senior persons were not to be loved. Ares, or Mars, was the personification of war. Zeus, or Jupiter, was the God of thunder and lightning, Etc
In the Hellenistic worldview, human beings were at the mercy of natural forces, sometimes conflicting, often whimsical. To the Hellenists, human beings were not able to master their instincts. Nature could not be changed. On the contrary, it was to be worshipped.
And, of course, society also could not be changed. It had to be accepted as it was. I am an old Marxist, so let me remind you that in the Hellenistic world, as a rule, slaves could not elevate themselves socially, let alone become free citizens. Once you’re born a slave, you remain a slave. It is your nature.
Hellenists scoff at the Jewish idea that human beings can change and that moral improvement is possible via teshuva. And to them, a religious law that allowed the slave to have a day of rest just like their master was subversive, to say the least. “What is this weird idea of one and only God who dictates you to rest one day per week and even extends such a right to the slaves? And by the way, why do you want to alter your male genitalia?” The irony was that Hellenists regarded themselves as ultimately enlightened and tolerant.
“We do not understand your tribal superstition, but -hey!- we can accommodate a statue of your barbaric and tribal God, that old man with a white beard, alongside the many beautiful, attractive, well-shaped, eternally young Greek gods”. And if Jews pointed out that we cannot even imagine the features of our God, the answer was sarcastic. “Why, you Jews, don’t you accept to play this game of tolerance and inclusion? Why do you want to set yourself apart? What’s wrong with us? So it is true that you are racist.”
I know this sounds terribly familiar because these accusations levelled against our faith are still around. The Hellenists actually crafted them in large part.
The confrontation between Hellenism and Judaism was not a purely theoretical matter. It took the form of a war, of a civilians’ war, between Jews loyal to their heritage, led by the Hasmoneans, against the Hellenized Jews, who wanted to turn the Jerusalem Temple into a Greek temple, with statues, athletic competitions and all the rest of it.
Neither was it a confrontation between equals because the Hellenised Jews were part of the Hellenistic cultural environment; that is, they shared a worldview, a culture and a faith (or a sort of faith) with all the rest of the Mediterranean world. While the Jews loyal to the Tradition, who fought to reconquer the Jerusalem Temple, were a few families, a small group and little more. For this reason, their victory was nothing short of a miracle.
Think of the Israeli independence war, a small army of Holocaust survivors against the Armies of five big Arab States, not a few of them trained literally by Nazi instructors. Or think of the Yom Kippur War, with Israel on one side and the Soviet-supported coalition of Arab States, Or the Six Day War, 100.000 Jewish soldiers deployed against 567.000 troops from various Arab States. We are a people of David used to defeat Goliaths, after all. Nonetheless, the end of the Maccabean war and the Temple finally back in Jewish hands was -understandably- perceived and narrated as nothing less than a miracle, given the disparity among forces.
Consider also what else was at stake. In 165 BC, at the time of the anti-Hellenistic revolt led by the Hasmonean family, which included the war hero Judah Maccabee, the Jerusalem Temple was the only place in the world devoted to the monotheistic faith. Literally, all the rest of the Mediterranean world and beyond was Hellenistic, that is, pagan. They worshipped nature. While the Hasmoneans restored the worship of God.
How so? By celebrating the last holiday they had a memory — Sukkot! Two months before the battle in Jerusalem, as good Jews, the Hasmoneans had celebrated Sukkot. As soon as the Jews took once again possession of the Temple, they were able to celebrate again, and that celebration was Sukkot in the Winter. Because Sukkot and Chanukah are the only Jewish holidays that last eight days.
Yes, I know the story of the oil miracle; thank you. But who said that to produce new oil, we actually need eight days? You can easily imagine that inflamed with enthusiasm for the achieved victory, those Jews, after one day, perhaps two days of hard work, had produced enough pure and new oil for the Temple menorah.
Why eight days? The number eight is there for a reason. And the resemblance with Sukkot is that reason. Because on Sukkot, we bring agricultural products inside the Temple to show that we thank God for providing us with nourishment. We do not worship nature.
We prepare to celebrate Chanukah by eating doughnuts and latkes, playing with the dreidle and singing every possible song with the melody of Maoz Tzur, and some of us will even wear ugly Chanukah jumpers.
It’s great and beautiful. But like our ancestors, do not forget Sukkot, do not forget the reason why we celebrate the holidays and -as difficult as it is- try to thank God. If anything, because we have managed another year.
Shekheheyanu! and Chanukah Sameach