The confusion and ignorance about the Jewish winter holiday stem in part from unreliable, inconsistent information about the “wicked oppressors” whose overthrow has been celebrated in this season for more than 2000 years. The Washington Post article, for instance, misleadingly summarized Hanukah as “a Jewish holiday celebrating the ancient victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians.” In countless articles and discussions about the origins of the festival, the enemies of the Jewish faith are variously identified as “Syrians,” “Greeks,” “Assyrians” (totally wrong!), “Assyro-Greeks,” “Syro-Greeks,” and so forth. The inability to come up with a clear answer about who fought to suppress the Judean rebels in 165 B.C. makes it harder to take seriously the history behind the holiday and increases the likelihood that even serious people will focus instead on pleasant but puerile aspects of contemporary celebration.
Actually, Hanukah is hardly unique among religious holidays in highlighting evil-doers whose schemes and cruelty God helps to overcome. The corresponding Christmas celebration recalls the tyrannical King Herod, who wants to kill the Christ child at the very moment of his birth and ends up slaughtering “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under…” (Matthew, II.16). No one experiences confusion or doubt in identifying the chief bad guy (Pharaoh) of the Passover holiday, or the various wicked figures (Roman authorities and the High Priest’s Temple establishment) in the Easter story. In the Jewish festival of Purim (rightly viewed as a parallel “deliverance” celebration to Hanukah) the Book of Esther unequivocally specifies “the evil Haman” as the enemy who plans to destroy the people of Israel.
Ironically, the historical sources for the Hanukah story are far more authoritative, substantive and complete than any non-Biblical records of the Exodus, the tale of Esther and Mordecai, or even the Nativity or Crucifixion. The Hasmonean Revolt – in which Jewish “Puritans” (and that would be an appropriate designation) won an unlikely triumph against those who embraced or accommodated “enlightened” Greek culture-- looked like a significant event even at the time and numerous contemporary historians took note.
Two centuries earlier, Alexander the Great had swept through the Middle East on his way to conquering most of the civilized world. At the time of his death (323 B.C.) three of his Greek-Macedonian generals divided his empire and one of them, Seleucus (originally known as Nicator) took control of Babylonia and the surrounding territory (eventually including Judea). His successors built a powerful, cosmopolitan capital city (Antioch) in present-day Turkey, but it’s confusingly identified as the center of the ancient, Seleucid (named after Seleucus, obviously) kingdom of Syria.
This kingdom, by the way, bears no connection to current day Syrians – who are proudly and unequivocally Arab, and whose ancestors didn’t arrive in the area until 800 years after the events of the Hanukah story. Silly contemporary comments that try to parallel present-day battles of “Israelis and Syrians” to similar struggles between “Israelites and Syrians” in the second century B.C., count as utterly dishonest and off the mark.
In any event, the great-great grandson of Alexander’s general Seleucus was a megalomaniac named Antiochus IV, who had himself proclaimed “Antiochus Epiphanes” – the Illustrious, or Magnificent. He felt so intoxicated with the glories of humanistic Greek culture (which had come to dominate most of the civilized world) that he determined to crack down on his retrograde Jewish subjects with their old-fashioned, monotheistic faith and stubbornly anachronistic folkways. Like today’s secularists, the followers of Antiochus took special aim at the rite of circumcision – which, to the enlightened Hellenists, unforgivably marred the “divine perfection” of the human form. Wealthy children of the Judean elite embraced up-to-date Greek culture so completely that they even submitted to profoundly painful operations to hide the impact of their infant circumcisions, allowing them to wrestle nude at the gymnasium without embarrassment. That nude wrestling suggested another area of impassioned disagreement between the broad-minded humanists of that era and their implacable opponents on the Religious Right: the conservatives and puritans who eventually rebelled against the assimilationist establishment, refused to abandon their old, judgmental, intolerant and restrictive attitude toward the male homosexuality so casually and proudly accepted in Greek-influenced societies.
Eventually, a hillbilly priest (Mattathias) from the backwoods town of Modin led his five war-like sons in a bloody revolt against the compromises and betrayals and degeneracy of the local Jewish establishment. The bad guys of the Hanukah story weren’t so much foreign occupiers as they were indigenous traitors who junked the demanding faith of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for the trendy, hedonistic, easy-going relativism of Aristotle, Alexander and Antiochus. By placing Greek gods in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Hellenist Jewish leadership didn’t try to exclude or prevent the old worship – they meant to open up the Holy of Holies to worshipers of every nation and of every deity in a grand celebration of diversity.
Anyone who takes even ten minutes to read the actual history of the Maccabean revolt will see similarities between its priestly leaders (most conspicuously, the great commander Judah Maccabee, son of Mattathias) and today’s prominent figures in the Religious Right. The Maccabees insisted on re-affirming ultimate right and wrong, and saw their battle as part of a timeless struggle of good and evil. They demanded a return to the old ways, to the authentic, uncompromising laws of God and the Torah, and they felt only contempt for the Hellenizing modernists who fought against them. The rebels represented the common people – the poor and the humble artisans and the struggling farmers who remained loyal to the ancient faith – while their enemies represented the pampered urban elites, over-educated in the cosmopolitan ways of Judea’s Greek overlords. Again, the basic prayer of the holiday makes clear the essential nature of the struggle, “In the days of Mattathias….and his sons, when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your Will, You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their distress. You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.”
In other words, the Religious Right of ancient Judea won a startling victory and we’re meant to celebrate its lessons some 2200 years after the fact.
At an odd moment of history when many leaders of the Jewish people are again displaying the ancient, Hellenistic fascination with homosexuality, humanism, relativism and diversity, it’s not surprising that many left-leaning sects and organizations want to hide the genuine themes of Hanukah. But at a moment when both America and Israel face crucial cultural conflicts that echo the holiday’s ancient struggles, those who know the truth need to broadcast the light of the long-ago miracles and affirm our annual rededication to authentic and undiluted faith.
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