Or, why a holiday celebrating the ascent to power of a violent theocracy doesn’t clash with our modern values
By Harris Eppsteiner
Hanukkah, Hanukkah, such a beautiful holiday!
Dear light all around,
Joy for young children!
—Traditional Hebrew folksong
And they circumcised all the children whom they found in the confines of Israel that were uncircumcised. – I Maccabees 1:46
I have a strong suspicion that my experience of Hanukkah growing up was like that of many young American Jews: my family would light the hanukkiah, my sister and I would tear into our designated gifts, and we would sit down as a family to an artery-clogging feast of latkes, sour cream, and applesauce. Topped off with a game of dreidel or two and a small mesh bag of chocolate coins, the evening would conclude with the four of us drifting off to sleep in a Crisco-induced coma of holiday bliss. Kindle, fry, repeat.
Of course, no holiday in our family, at least while my sister and I were young, was complete without some sort of explanation of just why Mom and Dad weren’t eating that day, or why we were sitting in a hastily-constructed wood hut decorated with construction-paper chains in our backyard for dinner, or why Grandpa was droning on and on from a Maxwell House Haggadah published during the Ford administration. And Hanukkah was no different. Every year, we would hear the same shpiel of the evil Greeks, the righteous Maccabees, the rededication of the Temple after the victory of Judah and his brothers over Antiochus, and, yes, the little jug of oil that could. The miracle of the oil, of course, was the reason why we were allowed to override every prohibition that Mom had ever given us about fatty foods and why we were provided with, no, entitled to, eight days’ worth of presents.
The trouble is, the miracle of the oil, along with its centrality to the celebration of Hanukkah, is a late innovation. It doesn’t appear in writing until the Babylonian Talmud, nearly seven hundred years after the Maccabean revolt:
What is Hanukkah? Our Rabbis taught: “On the 25th day of the month of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukkah…for when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all of the oil in it. And when the Hasmoneans defeated them, they looked and could find only one container of oil stamped with the High Priest’s seal, and there was only enough in it for one day. There was a miracle, and they were able to light from it for eight days. (Shabbat 21b)
The Books of Maccabees, Philo, and Josephus – written much closer to the actual revolt – all fail to mention the miracle. And there’s no mention anywhere else of the High Priest’s seal being used to mark oil for the Temple. So if it’s not about the tiny jug – the story that we’ve received everywhere from the Shalom Sesame videos to the Rugrats Hanukkah Special – what exactly does Hanukkah celebrate?
The answer, to put it bluntly, is conquest. Although “Hanukkah” (Hebrew for “dedication”) refers to the rededication of the Second Temple by the Hasmoneans, the holiday was instituted primarily as a celebration of their military victory over the Greek Seleucids. The liturgy for Hanukkah, including the Hallel prayer said otherwise only on festivals contained in the Torah, are a sort of Jewish Te Deum, an expression of gratitude for the martial success of Jews over Greeks who sought to wipe Judaism out forever. Good triumphed over evil; praise the Lord and pass the potato pancakes.
Yet this good-versus-evil reading of the Hanukkah story is just as much a myth as the miracle of the oil of the Rabbis. In fact, the Hasmonean revolt was just as much an intra-Jewish civil war as it was a revolt against a tyrannical occupying power. The Hasmoneans sought not only to fight back against the Seleucid regime that had banned the practice of Judaism as a religion, but also to eliminate any trace of Greek culture among the Jews and to perpetuate their puritanical view as the only one approved by God. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were just as willing to kill Jews who failed to support their agenda as they were Greeks who actively opposed them. According to the First Book of Maccabees, a pro-Hasmonean source, the Hasmoneans even took time out of their busy campaign against Antiochus to forcibly circumcise every boy within the borders of Israel.
Upon their victory, the Hasmoneans created a unified Judean state and merged the previously-separate roles of king and High Priest. With the crown and the breastplate securely in their hands, the Hasmonean kings created a corrupt theocracy and gained the dubious distinction of instigating the only forcible conversions to Judaism in the religion’s history. Infighting among the later generations of the Hasmoneans led ultimately to the Roman occupation of Judea and the end of an independent Jewish commonwealth. The Hasmonean kingdom became, in the eyes of the Rabbis of later generations, a cautionary tale of the corruption bred by power and its disastrous consequences.
Hanukkah celebrates the ascendance of a corrupt, religiously fundamentalist regime that saw nothing wrong with killing Jews who failed to keep to its standards of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, declared that the display of a hanukkiah represents, for this very reason, “the victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason” and should be opposed by any decent-minded, rational human being.
The question we face as Jews who are members of both a diverse Jewish community and a broader multicultural society, and who are tolerant of (or even encourage) this diversity, is the same as that posed by the Rabbis of the Talmud: Mai Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah? That is, how can we possibly celebrate a holiday that commemorates something foreign to our values as both members of society as a whole and as “modern” Jews?
The Rabbis, in their rereading of the events of 167 BCE, depoliticized and dehistoricized the story of Hanukkah. Though their distaste for the historical narrative of conquest probably had many sources (among them their own acceptance of certain aspects of Greek culture, including Greek-language terms like Sanhedrin and synagogue), the overwhelming violence of the Hasmonean revolt certainly played a large role in their mythological rereading of the story. Yet Hanukkah cannot be mythologized. The Hanukkah narrative is too recent, too well-attested in multiple sources (Jewish and non-Jewish), and too bloody to simply read its problematic aspects out of existence. And while we may spill wine on Passover to mourn the suffering of the Egyptians, we do no such thing to mourn the death and destruction wrought by the Maccabees on their fellow Jews (or on the Greeks). Though the Rabbis tried to turn Hanukkah into a celebration of God’s providence, they ultimately failed to deal on the most fundamental level with the historical facts of the revolt of Judah and his brothers.
We continue to perpetuate this failure today. The way we in the United States celebrate it, Hanukkah is a celebration of family, of community, of light in the dark of winter, not of religious fanaticism and violence. As my mother would say, “It’s just such a nice tradition.” But while trotting out the Fiddler on the Roof excuse can momentarily soothe our aching values and paper over a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t make for a very satisfying response. Jewish culture is one of dialogue, both between Jews in a given time period – the Talmud’s dialogic style being the clearest example of this – and between generations of Jews across the continuum of Jewish history. In order to be honest to ourselves not only as people who value tolerance and mutual respect but, more importantly, as Jews, we need to ask ourselves, again: is there anything about Hanukkah that can redeem it from its bloodstained source?
The First Book of Maccabees suggests one possible answer in its description of the decrees of Antiochus that set off the Hasmonean revolt:
Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion.…He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” (I Maccabees 1:41-43, 50)
Ruling over a multicultural, polyglot empire, Antiochus thus aimed, according to the I Maccabees author, for the complete assimilation of every man, woman, and child within its borders. But this was no admirable attempt to create a melting pot, a unified public culture for the Seleucid Empire out of those of its constituent peoples. This was something far more insidious: not only the full hegemony of Hellenistic culture in the empire, but the complete elimination of all non-Hellenistic cultures as well, by force if necessary. All too ready to submit to Anitochus’s culturally imperialistic decree, the Gentiles, and even some Jews, willingly acceded to his command. The Hasmoneans, however, refused. And perhaps this is what we can take away from the true story of Hanukkah: the Maccabees’ refusal to submit to the cultural domination of Antiochus and the Greeks. This we can reclaim, this we can affirm without stooping to either willful ignorance or studied mythologizing.
What does this mean for us today, then? Acknowledging that the Maccabean revolt led to the violent institution of a corrupt, intolerant theocracy doesn’t preclude us from affirming the value of standing up to cultural hegemony. For American Jews especially, this ability makes Hanukkah into a holiday of insistence that we as Jews have a unique and valuable culture, albeit one that is multivocal and diverse, despite pressures to conform to the totalizing discourses of modern post-industrial American culture. Antiochus’s imposition of Hellenism was backed by the sword, and so by the sword it had to be fought, even if the Maccabees were beyond extreme in their violent zealotry. But the imposition of discourse and cultural narratives today is far subtler. Instead of a royal decree backed by violent coercion, we have mass media and consumer culture, among other sources, demanding of us certain attitudes, beliefs, and actions that we tend to see as natural or normal or “just how things are.” Hanukkah gives us the chance to view ourselves in our particular historical moment, to question the extent to which dominant cultural discourses have imposed themselves on us without our knowledge. On Hanukkah, we place a hanukkiah in our homes in a spot visible from the outside. The Rabbis of the Talmud referred to this act as pirsumei nissa, the “publication of the miracle” of Hanukkah. But it is just as much an instance of pirsumei umma, the publication of our self-identity, to other members of secular society.
True, the Hasmoneans were later as guilty of violent enforcement of cultural and religious norms within the kingdom that they set up as was Antiochus in his empire. But there is a difference, though perhaps a subtle one, between the zealotry of the resister and the zealotry of the oppressor. The Hasmoneans were as much a product of their historical moment as the Hellenized Syrians that they fought against. The Maccabees were violent and puritanical, but at the moment when they were faced with a choice between submission and resistance to a totalizing cultural discourse, they chose to resist. We may cringe at the rivers of blood they spilled, but we cannot expect that any national-religious group in the second century BCE would have respected what we would call “human rights.” To do so would be to show a ridiculous indifference to the reality of history. The necessity of this acknowledgement is no different from the necessity of acknowledging Hanukkah as a historical, and not mythological, event.
Interestingly, it is in Israel, the first independent Jewish state since the Hasmonean Second Commonwealth, that the Hanukkah story is perhaps most honestly dealt with as a historical phenomenon. Rehistoricized and repoliticized within Zionist discourse as a celebration of Jewish courage and military might, Hanukkah in Israel focuses mainly on the military defeat of the Seleucids – that is, with the historical facts of the holiday’s institution. Yet Zionism has tried just as much to mythologize the story as the Rabbis, though to the opposite effect. Instead of downplaying the role of conquest in favor of religious piety, the “Israeli” Hanukkah deemphasizes the Hasmoneans’ religious fervor to the point of painting them as a First-Century-BCE Haganah. Of course, this is just as disingenuous as what we here in America do. And the post-Hanukkah story of the Hasmeoneans is conveniently ignored – yet this is exactly what Israeli Jews can take away most from the story of Hanukkah. The tale of the Hasmonean theocracy is only too relevant as a cautionary tale for Israeli society in its never-ending deliberations on the status of religious, ethnic, and ideological minorities.
Some might object to the focus on affirming the value of difference and resistance to dominating cultural narratives as merely perpetrating the same sort of selective emphasis as the Rabbis. But at the very least, this argument is willing to acknowledge the historical basis for Hanukkah and emphasize it while openly recognizing its more unpalatable aspects. Jewish culture is a conversation across history, and only by engaging in an active, constructive dialogue with the facts of our history – the good, the bad, and the Hasmonean – can we be true to ourselves as participants in the discussion. So next Hanukkah, light the hanukkiah, spin the dreidel, and heat up the frying pan. Just go easy on the oil.