One of the reasons that Chanukah is among the most-observed Jewish holidays across denominations is because it’s a celebration of Jewish pride. After all, the main mitzvah of the holiday is to place candles in our windows to publicize the miracles of the historical Chanukah, of what God did for the Jewish People. We thereby re-enact the celebratory rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, tying our present to the triumphant Maccabean past.
The context of the historical Chanukah that we celebrate today was the Jewish identity crisis of the 160s BCE. After Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 BCE, Judea came under the rule of the Greeks. At the time, the boundaries between Jew and Greek were not always clear, because one became Greek by adopting Greek language and customs. While there were certainly many Jews who actively resisted Hellenistic influence, there were plenty of others who were quite open to Greek culture’s ideas and influences.
The Jewish playwright Ezekiel even used the genre of Greek tragedy to write the play Exagoge, retelling the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt in Greek! To be sure, some of the Jews who were open to Hellenism’s cultural influences drew the line when it came to polytheistic worship and rejected Greek religion, but others did not. In their attempts to become fully Hellenized and their rejection of Second Temple-era Judaism, some Jews went so far as to try to reverse their circumcisions, the physical mark of God’s covenant with Abraham.
In 175 BCE, the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV came to power and ended the earlier policy of religious tolerance. For unknown reasons, he looted the Temple and banned Jewish circumcision, festival and Sabbath observance, and Torah study. When Antiochus rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus – making it impossible to worship God – and began to compel Jews to offer sacrifices to Zeus, some Jews turned to violence to defend their faith and traditions.
Led by Mattathias and his son Judah of Modi’in, they led an effective and ultimately successful guerrilla war against the Greeks.
Until Antiochus began his program of religious oppression, the majority of Jews throughout the ancient world found their own ways to mediate between complete resistance to Greek culture and total assimilation. The same is true of us today. As Canadian Jews, we, too, adopt and adapt elements of Canadian culture as we participate in society. In so doing, we prioritize the different aspects of our identities – Canadian and Jew – as needed. This raises a few questions: What makes me Jewish? What makes me Canadian? What am I willing to sacrifice to be Canadian? To be Jewish? Am I identifiable as a Jew? Do I want to be? When I travel, do I pin a Canadian flag to my bag? A Star of David? When these identities conflict with each other, which takes precedence? Why?
We celebrate the Maccabees for both their military success against the Greek oppressor and also for their religious zealotry, their insistence on maintaining and preserving the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors. Two ironies of history bear mentioning. In order to win the war, the Maccabees reached out to the burgeoning Roman empire for military support, of whom the Greeks were quite afraid. This marked the beginning of the Jews’ tragic relationship with Rome, the empire that would ultimately destroy Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.
The second irony is that after the war with the Greeks was over, the Maccabees took over both the religious and temporal leadership of Judea. There is some evidence that they resisted foreign influence, but they also gave their children Greek names, minted coins after the Greek model, and built palaces and tombs in the Greek style. How can we reconcile this apparent inconsistency?
Maybe the solution is to realize that the boundaries between the different and competing aspects of our identities are not well-defined. And Chanukah is the time to reflect on the values and identities that make us who we are.
Yedida Eisenstat is an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at York University.