The annual fun is upon us. But for those interested in such things, there’s lots of fuzzy history to contemplate.
It’s probably best to ignore all that comes next, to enjoy with the kids and grandchildren, the parties, in Israel the long vacation from school, as well as the gifts and the nightly lighting of candles and the song (מעוז צור, Rock of Ages) that recalls our survival from many miseries, as long as we older folks don’t go overboard in guzzling oil fried potato pancakes and oil soaked donuts.
The heavier intellectual stuff can start with realizing that an event that has come to serve as a high point, especially in the lives of American Jews, is in its roots one of the problematic occasions on the Jewish calendar. It is not a holiday (חג). That designation is reserved to the occasions marked in the Torah as days of rest and special observance, i.e., Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Pesach, and Shavuot. Hanukkah is arguable lower than that other great day for the kids, Purim, which at least has the Book of Esther, an established part of the תנ’ך (Hebrew Bible}, as the source of its story and celebration.
Jews who know what they are saying refrain from greeting one another during Hanukkah with the expression חג שמח, and use the more limited חנוכה שמח, or
חג אורים שמח, i.e., Happy Hanukkah or Happy Holiday of Lights, rather than Happy Holiday.
The story of Hanukkah appears in the Books of Maccabees. They made it into several versions of the Christian Bible, but were excluded by the Rabbis who decided on the contents of what became the Hebrew Bible.
The name of Hanukkah derives from the Hebrew verb לחנוך, to dedicate. It refers to the rededication of the Temple after the impurities created by the Greeks.
One cannot be sure of what happened when stories we read are marked by strong feelings, but it’s conventional to say that the Rabbis felt that the family that was heroic in standing up to the Greeks had within a short time become like the Greeks, and their story was excluded from holy text.
The Hasmonean descendants of Mattiathias, whose actions began the story, have been cursed for their bloody record of court intrigues that produced, at most, a brief independence from foreign rule, and ended with the ascendance of Herod, whose antecedents and actions produced their own problems for contemporary and subsequent Rabbis.
The initial bit of heroism provides its own worries for multi-culturalists. It involved the killing of a Jew who was behaving like a Greek.
The Jewish tradition of cursing those who became like Greeks, i.e., Hellenizers, raises its own cluster of curiosities.
Despite antipathy to Hellenization, reality is that the vast majority of modern Jews are at least as much like the ancient Greeks as the ancient Judeans. Jews’ accomplishments in secular education, creative and analytic thought, science, art, music, literature, and commerce are as Greek, or more so, than they are Judaic. Comparing the political and economic status of modern Israel and Greece, taking into account the diasporas of both, it appears that Jews have outGreeked the Greeks.
Jews have not adopted the gods of the ancient Greeks, unless one sees parallels in the near worship of material success. And there is some doubt as to how intense and important was belief in those deities among the Greeks.
Judaic Hellenization is not entirely a new phenomenon. The Book of Ecclesiastes seems closer to Greek pondering of the universe than to a more conventional Judaic praise of the Almighty, despite what may be a latter day addition of piety in the last chapter, perhaps meant to pass musters with the Rabbis who decided on the Biblical Canon. The Book of Job is in a similar category, given its concern with the bad things that happened to a good man.
If the popularity of Hellenization passed from the scene, at least superficially, something very similar returned quickly with the adoption by many Jews of Roman culture during the period of the Second Temple. Josephus fought for the Jews against the Romans, and then changed sides and provided us with what is arguably the best histories of his time and place.
Those who accept Hanukkah without questioning the actions of latter day Hasmoneons, emphasize a dual message. It is both a celebration of throwing off an undesirable foreign rule, and citing the Almighty for a miracle in which one day’s supply of oil managed to fuel a sacred light for eight days.
Scholars who research such things find secular Jews emphasizing their ancestors throwing off foreign rule, and seeing it reflected in the Zionist victories of Israelis, while religious Jews concentrate on the miracle associated with the oil and the Holy Temple.
For American Jews, with the campaign of Chabad and their success in getting Hanukkah memorialized in the White House, Hanukkah stands not only as a high point of their Jewish calendar, but an apt counter to Christmas in keeping Jews from even greater assimilation.
There’s an anthropological insight into both Hanukkah and Christmas that is worth some attention as we’re singing and stuffing ourselves. Both occasions may be nothing more than latter-day adoptions of pagan celebrations that sought to bring some light and gaiety into the midst of winter’s cold and darkness. Skeptics who may be loosely Jewish or Christian can doubt the miracles claimed for both holidays, as well as the details written by the faithful, many years after they were said to have occurred.
And while you are thinking about all of that, enjoy one or both holidays, without overdoing either.
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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