Hanukkah began this year at sundown on Christmas day.
Jacoby points out that Hanukkah has become a major event for American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. Indeed, the way it is now celebrated is evidence of the assimiliation of Jews to the mainstream American culture.
But in fact, the festival is not really about assimiliation, but about Jews maintaining their identity.
Ironically, Hanukkah was established to commemorate the very opposite of cultural assimilation. It dates back nearly 22 centuries, to the successful Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV, one of the line of Syrian-Greek monarchs who ruled the northern branch of Alexander the Great’s collapsed empire. Alexander had been respectful of the Jews’ monotheistic religion, but Antiochus was determined to impose Hellenism, with its pagan gods and its cult of the body, throughout his domains. When he met resistance in Judea, he made Judaism illegal.Eventually the faithful Jews captured Jerusalem, and cleansed and purified the Temple.
Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the study of Torah were banned on pain of death. A statue of Zeus was installed in the Temple in Jerusalem, and swine were sacrificed before it. Some Jews embraced the new order and willingly abandoned the God and faith of their ancestors. Those who wouldn’t were cruelly punished. Ancient writings tell the story of Hannah and her seven sons, who were captured by Antiochus’s troops and commanded to bow to an idol. One by one, each boy refused — and was tortured to death before his mother’s eyes.
The fight to reclaim Jewish religious autonomy began in 167 BC. In the town of Modi’in, an elderly priest named Mattathias — in Hebrew, Mattityahu — refused a Syrian order to sacrifice to an idol. When an apostate Jew stepped forward to comply, Mattathias killed the man and tore down the altar. Then he and his five sons took to the hills and launched a guerrilla war against the armies of the empire.
On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, the menorah — the candelabra symbolizing the divine presence — was rekindled. For eight days, throngs of Jews celebrated the Temple’s restoration. “All the people prostrated themselves,” records the book of Maccabees, “worshipping and praising Heaven that their cause had prospered.”One thing Jacoby doesn’t discuss is the fact that, judged by today’s standards, the actions of the the zealous Maccabees might be considered controversial. They were quite willing to use violence against Jews who would compromise their faith and assimilate to the Hellenistic worldview. But then, they faced violent persecution too, in a world where religious tolerance was rare. So the choices were violent resistence or suppression.
But what, for Jacoby, was the significance of all this?
What Hanukkah commemorates at heart is the Jewish yearning for God, for the concentrated holiness of the Temple and its service. The defeat of the Syrian-Greeks was a wonder, but the spiritual climax of the Maccabees’ rebellion occurred when the menorah was rekindled and God’s presence among His people could be felt once again.Thus Christians, like Jews, can say “this was part of God’s plan,” and “those zealous fighters were on God’s side.” Religious people today, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are heirs of the worldview that the Maccabees, at one critical juncture of history, fought for and preserved.
The lack of a physical side to Hanukkah is unusual but appropriate. For the Maccabees’ war against the Hellenists was ultimately a war against a worldview that elevated the physical above all, that venerated beauty, not holiness; the body, not the soul. The Jews fought to preserve a different view of the world — one with God, not man, at its center. Had they failed, Judaism would have died. Because they triumphed, the Jewish religion survived. And from it, two centuries later, Christianity was born.