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The Chanukah story

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-12-10

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Since my youth the colour and the flavour of Anglo and, indeed, World Jewry has changed. I was brought up in a world in which the vast majority of Jews desperately longed to be accepted by the non-Jews, and as a result relegated their Jewishness to the margins of their lives.

In Britain Jewish education was, apart from small pockets, virtually non-existent. Besides, the World Wars had disrupted the Jewish lives of two generations and the upheavals in Western Europe had resulted in a generation of Jewish cultural orphans. The surprising thing was the determination of the few not to give up.

Britain was unusual in that the community was notoriously philistine and uninterested in culture. Such as there was, seemed to exist almost entirely thanks to the continuing immigration from Vienna and the Mittle European cultural centres. Within the Jewish community cultural Judaism hardly existed at all. France was different. It had a strong secular Jewish tradition, which it still has, as do Belgium and the United States, and, of course, Israel. I guess thanks to these external influences Britain, too, is beginning to see a rise in secular culture as an expression of Jewish identity.

If we were to go back two thousand one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, to the time of Antiochus IV and the Maccabee Revolt, we would find a similar situation. Babylon was sort of the New York of those days, where most Jews resided. Others were resident in the major commercial and political centres of their world, Alexandria, Rome, and as Far East as India. So the Jews were a multifaceted, multicultural collection even then. But still, in those days, you identified with a country and a culture, which were essentially religious, even though the degree of one’s commitment would vary, of course.

Alexander the Great had introduced the idea of an intellectual culture that could span different continents and different religious traditions. The culture of Greece created the first pan-cultural tradition, and Judaism ended up borrowing its technological and systematic innovations while rejecting its rationalism and materialism.  (For example, the idea of schools was adopted from the Greeks.)

In the Land of Israel the Jews had been allowed by Alexander to continue their own religious traditions, so long as they were loyal to the overriding political authority of the Empire. The High Priest was the titular head of the Jews. What was once a religious appointment now became a political one. Rival families of priests bribed or plotted their way to power by playing off the rival powers who succeeded Alexander and had carved up his Empire and then battled each other for supremacy in the Land of Israel (which found itself caught between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria).

The priests formed a party called the Sadducees after the dominant priestly family of Zadok (Sadducee is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Zadoki).  Most of the priests and the merchant classes were wealthy and very pro-Greece. They soon adopted its culture and more. The priests actually introduced the theatre, circus and games into Jerusalem, itself. The poor peasants were, in the main, supporters of the rabbis who became known as the Pharisees (literally, the Rebels). They tended to be more nationalistic and resistant to external influences. The two parties were rivals for power and fought each other with varying degrees of bitterness and violence over the next two hundred years. There were a few priests who sided with the rabbis against their own majority, and for a lot of the time the two sides accommodated each other over Temple ceremonies.

But the fact was that the vast majority of the Jewish population were well on the road to assimilation into the new exciting Greek world and would have soon disappeared had Antiochus IV not made the fatal mistake, in 168 BCE, of listening to the advice of some assimilating Jews. They suggested he force the rabbis out of existence by banning them, so he had his representatives in Israel set about trying to ban Jewish worship and customs outside of the Temple and then making the Temple itself the center of Greek affairs.

We Jews are a funny lot. Left to our own devices we readily abandon our traditions, but let anyone try pushing us around and we get Bolshy! A small group of pious men decided it was time to fight back. Had the few religious fanatics, fundamentalists, call them what you like, not taken it upon themselves to resist the lure of a free, liberal, self-indulgent world, we would have probably disappeared. And yet the victory was not at all clear-cut. There were a series of guerilla wins. But internal politics kept the main forces in Damascus. Yes Judah re-took the Temple and re-dedicated it but a Syrian garrison remained in Jerusalem and when Judah had to confront a serious Syrian army at Bet Zur, he was killed, his brothers fled and once again it was only politics that got Jonathan back, not force of arms.

Chanukah is the story of religious conviction, even if unfashionable, resisting and preserving itself. Cultural identification was leading to a dead Jewish end. Important and valuable as cultural Judaism was/ is, what ultimately differentiates us is our religious tradition. How interesting, then, that the modern Israeli games modeled on the Greeks should call itself the Maccabia, when the Maccabee revolution was initially against everything cultural that Greece stood for. Later on the Maccabees themselves, assimilated and felt more Roman than Jewish--which is why the Talmud doesn’t mention them at all! That was also why the rabbis ensured that the primary message of Chanukah would not be military victory but spiritual survival.

The moral of all of this Chanukah history is that without a deep commitment to a Jewish religious way of life, we are doomed. Yet fundamentalism that does not accommodate itself to technological advance (whilst preserving its integrity) cannot survive as a vibrant option instead of a fossil. And you can only afford to indulge in other cultures if you are deeply rooted and well educated in your own. Otherwise the dominant one is sure to prevail.