by Michael Zimmerman, American Thinker
Hanuka celebrates a spiritual and military victory in Israel nearly 2,200 years ago that has inspired generations of Jews and many Gentiles. A few faithful Jews were victorious over their assimiliationist brethren and the Hellenist Syrians of the Greek-founded Seleucid Empire.
The events commemorated by Hanuka were necessary for the continuation and ultimate spread of monotheism in that they insured the survival of Judaism. Less than two centuries later, Judea, in all its flux and difficulties under Roman occupation, was the scene of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teachings. While Jews have continued to celebrate Hanuka and remember, many Christians learn about the events by reading the Books of Maccabees in the Protestant Apocrypha and the Roman Catholic Canon of the Old Testament.
In the Middle Ages, tapestries and statues lionizing Judah Maccabee were created, and they are still in view in various European Christian communities (Cologne and Nuremberg, Germany; Innsbruck, Austria; Pierrefonds, France; Somerset, England; and more). A statue of the Maccabee warrior leader stands at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The awareness represented by those monuments may have faded somewhat for the moment, but it forms a basis, a tradition, for revival. As such, it is proposed here that Hanuka is the logical holiday to celebrate the Judeo-Christian ethic, so often appreciated and described as a common American heritage.
The long guerrilla war of the Jews, initially for religious freedom and later for national liberation, erupted following Seleucid decrees forbidding upon pain of death the observances of Judaism. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was defiled, the Sabbath systematically desecrated, and the ritual of circumcision prohibited. Torah scrolls were burned. Jews were forced to worship pagan idols and eat forbidden foods or be tortured to death.
The object of the Hellenist Syrian Seleucids was not religious conversion, but rather the suppression of Judaism. The reasons for this are multiple and complex. There was a perceived need to dominate Judea, located en route between the competitive empires of Hellenist Syrian Seleucids in the east and the Hellenist Ptolemaic Empire centered in Egypt. Also, there was a desire to legitimize raiding the wealth of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem as a revenue source. The Seleucids probably misunderstood the attachment of the dedicated religious Jews living in the mountains as compared to other peoples of the Middle East, who took easily to Hellenism. Some Jews who had taken to Hellenism for professional and other reasons may have urged a forced pace of assimilation for the entire Jewish community. There was an element of civil war in the conflict commemorated by Hanuka.
Hellenist practices included public nakedness in the community gymnasiums, among other behaviors anathema to religious Jewry. The most direct cause of the war was Hellenist profanation of the Temple in Jerusalem: the Hellenists were polytheists and erected idols in the Jewish Temple. This was linked with efforts to eradicate Jewish monotheistic religious practices.
The Temple, the symbolic center of the Jewish nation and focus of the people, was turned into “the abomination of desolation” (I Maccabees 1:54). Pagan rites involving prostitution were carried out within the sacred enclosures. The sacrifice of pigs on the altar was institutionalized, with the blood being sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. Thus were Jews outraged; thus were they roused to action!
The freedom of Jerusalem and the cleansing and rededication of the Temple were the primary goal of the Jews in their war of liberation. The central motif of Hanuka today is celebration of the inspiring political-military event after four years of warfare in which Jerusalem’s heart, the Holy Temple, was liberated, and of the religious moment that lasted eight days in which the Temple was reconsecrated.
Upon liberation of the Temple by the Jews, according to the popular account, only one day’s supply of ritually acceptable oil was found to light the central menorah (candelabra). By a miracle, the story goes, the scant oil lasted eight days until the supply of pure oil was replenished. The lore about oil is not recorded in any of the histories from the times — not in the Books of the Maccabees nor in the first century writings of Flavius Josephus.
It would appear that rabbis spiritualized Hanuka, reducing focus on its political and military origins, after the later military defeats by the Romans and the exile of many Jews from Judea in the first and second centuries. Also, many Jews had become anti-Hasmonean after the first generation of the Hanuka story, as the quality of Hasmonean leadership declined in subsequent generations until forces of the Roman Empire occupied Judea/Israel.
After the wars against the Roman occupation in the first and second centuries, the political environment was not conducive to Jewish celebrations of military victories, since Jews lived as a minority in an actively hostile empire. Not only did the Roman emperor Hadrian expel most Jews from Judea (“ethnic cleansing”), but he also changed the name of Judea to a name based on a Jewish enemy from a thousand years earlier — the Philistines, long gone from history — and renamed the land “Palestine.” Afterwards, Jewish leadership changed the profile of Hanuka from celebrating a military and political victory to celebrating a religious miracle about pure olive oil.
The eight days of Hanuka begin on the 25th of the month of Kislev, according to the Jewish lunar calendar, which usually falls in early or mid-December. Hanuka has nothing to do with Christmas; there is only the coincidence of the season in which they are celebrated, although in this essay I am proposing a connection for Christians.
The Maccabean period witnessed martyrdom on a mass scale for the first time in recorded history. The Maccabees’ readiness to undergo martyrdom brought them the devotion of the Jewish masses and strengthened their camp. The spiritual and fighting resistance of the persecuted Judeans has served as inspiration to both Jews and Gentiles in each generation since. From the days of the Hellenist Syrian oppression, martyrdom became a hallmark of Judaism, and relatively soon after (two to three centuries), early Christians drew directly upon this source when they as well as Jews were persecuted by the Romans.
Artistic representations and monuments built in the Middle Ages honoring Judah Maccabee, the religious warrior-leader of the Judeans, among other heroes of chivalry are found in Christian communities of Europe. The great 18th-century German composer George Frederick Handel composed the powerful oratorio Judas Maccabaeus.
Thus we see Christians of some centuries ago focused upon and celebrating our subject. Perhaps in this post-Holocaust period of religious reevaluation, it is a suitable time to rekindle this interest as relevant and representative of the present discussion and understanding of Judeo-Christian ethics and values.
Hellenists had many gods; the Jews had One. Religious offshoots of Judaism today — Islam no less than Christianity, not to mention Jews themselves — are indebted to those outnumbered men of Judea who fought so courageously long ago against imposed conformity and debasement. Without Jewish success when Judaism was so sorely menaced by Hellenism and the Syrians, monotheism may well have perished.
In modern Israel, Hanuka symbolizes the victory of few over the many and Jewish courage to assert themselves as a people — the impetus of the national renaissance twenty-two centuries ago and in our own times. Each year in Israel, a marathon torch relay race sets out from Modiin, where the Maccabean revolt broke out. Runners carry the torch to Jerusalem, where Israel’s president lights the Hanuka lights with the flame from Modiin.
The Jewish nation/religion was tried, tempered, and strengthened by its fierce encounter with the despotic Seleucid Empire of Hellenized Syrians twenty-two centuries ago. The Maccabees aroused Jews; strengthened them; inspired the world with heroism, defiance and faith; and prepared the Jewish people for the ordeals to come against the Romans, in exile, and for the rebirth in our own time. The story of the Maccabees has heartened persecuted Christians who know the story.
Joint appreciation of the Hanuka and Maccabean stories can be a bridge to understand the common heritage of Christians and Jews. It might be well were Hanuka to be celebrated by both communities, as commemoration of the preservation of monotheism.
The continuing development of Judaism and its consequences for world history, including the advent of Christianity, were insured by the resistance displayed by and the successful struggle of those Jewish inhabitants of tiny mountainous Judea and Samaria in that fateful first decade of their war for freedom during the second century. If the Jews had not been victorious in keeping their faith 2,200 years ago, monotheism may have perished, and Christianity may not have come to pass.
Michael Zimmerman lectures about international politics and Jewish history. An American, he worked in Israel for several years as a political analyst and explored sites connected to the Hanuka story mentioned in the ancient sources.