Joseph Cotto, 12/16/2014 [Archive]

Few People Truly Understand Hanukkah

By Joseph Cotto

The time for America's other winter holiday has arrived.

Most people have heard of Hanukkah, which in America is often seen as another gift-giving, end-of-year celebration to go with Christmas and Kwanzaa. Relatively few truly understand it.

Hanukkah isn't important to Jews as a religious holiday. Despite not being a high holy day, it garners more attention from the rest of America than any other Jewish celebration. And as with other time-honored traditions, fact and fiction have merged to form a compelling narrative about its origins.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire controlled Israel. Local Jews were able to practice their religion without persecution until King Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism. His soldiers made the Jerusalem temple a site of pagan worship and spread their beliefs throughout the land at swordpoint.

Mattathias Maccabee was the patriarch of a prominent priestly family. He and his followers lived in Modin, an agrarian town not far from Jerusalem. When Seleucid authorities arrived, they demanded he publicly adopt their religion. This would come in the form of making a sacrifice to pagan gods, something which traditional Jews found abhorrent.

Mattathias, a theological radical, refused compliance and killed a culturally assimilated — or Hellenized — Jew who offered to sacrifice in his place. After Mattathias's death, his sons, led by Judah, took up arms for an insurrection. The five brothers launched a guerrilla war against both the Seleucids and Hellenized Jews.

After a prolonged fight, the Maccabees not only defeated Syrian-Greek forces, but reclaimed Jerusalem and its temple, which they ritually cleansed. Along the way, they destroyed pagan altars, forcibly circumcised boys, and forced Hellenized Jews to readopt antiquated practices or flee for their lives.

What the Maccabees really wanted was not just freedom to practice their faith, but a theocracy and political independence for Judea. The Seleucids sent an army to quash the Maccabees, but with the death of Antiochus in 164 BCE, Lysias, the commander, turned his attention to the internal politics of his empire. He concluded a peace agreement with the Maccabees which legalized Judaism.

The bloodshed didn't end here, though.

Judah was ultimately a military leader whose authority rested on his ability to win battles and expand the territory of Judea. When he died in battle, his brother Jonathan, who was also the High Priest, continued fighting for two more decades until he was finally captured and executed. The war only ended when, in 138 BCE, the declining Seleucid Empire granted Judea independence. Jonathan's older brother, Simon, ruled until being murdered by his son-in-law. The family dynasty ended a hundred years later with Herod the Great's rise.

As for Hanukkah, it's commonly believed that the holiday extends back to the Maccabees as a means of celebrating conquest and remembering a miracle.

"Hanukkah originated long before the Maccabean victory," notes the Society for Humanistic Judaism in a web article about the holiday. "Its roots lie in the primitive winter festival of lights, Nayrot ... Marked by gaiety and gift-giving, the celebration served to dispel the seasonal darkness and gloom.

"Although the Maccabean victory actually occurred two months before the solstice, the coupling of Hanukkah and Nayrot ensured the survival of the Maccabean celebration. Some six hundred years after the Maccabean victory, the rabbis, seeking to inject a theistic justification for a celebration the people would not abandon, linked the revelry to Yahveh's power by introducing the legend of the single flask of oil that miraculously burned in the rededicated Temple for eight days."

Some celebrate Hanukkah by reveling in the memory of the Maccabees' military success. How do you cheer a civil war whose victors terrorized their already oppressed coreligionists?

Jews have celebrated the holiday throughout the ages to remember righteous strength and courage. In a comprehensive historical sense, it has little to do with the Maccabees. Rather, it's a living testament to perseverance in the face of adversity and devotion to tikkun olam — repairing our broken world.

We — irrespective of our religious beliefs — should embrace reason and work alongside others of good will. In the long run, that is what truly matters.

For me, the universalist message of Hanukkah couldn't be clearer.

——-

Copyright 2014 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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