Chanukah – Jewish Spiritual Survival
We just celebrated the beginning of the Jewish month of Kislev, the month in which Chanukah falls. This will be the first of a number of articles about the upcoming festival. First we will set the opening scenes of this epic encounter of Jewish history.
Israel: Approximately 200 years before the events of Chanukah, hundreds of thousands of Jews returned from the Babylonian exile to the Land of Israel. In time, they rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and established an independent Jewish monarchy.
Greece: After the death of Alexander the Great1 in 323 BCE, the Greek-Macedonian empire split into several smaller kingdoms: the Greek empire based in Greece; the Seleucid empire, based in Syria, and the Ptolemaic empire, based in Egypt.
The Land of Israel was situated precisely between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms, both of which were Greek in language and culture. In the struggle for regional domination between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, control of the trade routes and seaports of the Land of Israel became critical. Under Emperor Antiochus IV of Syria, the Seleucids invaded Israel. Although they did not physically exile the Jewish people, they created a state of virtual exile in the Land of Israel. The Jews were subject to Greek rule and Judaism came under attack from every side.
The Hellenist Seleucids wanted to swallow the Jews culturally and turn Israel into a Greek vassal state. Although they did not destroy the Temple, they defiled it and turned into a pagan Greek temple. Rather than merely disposing of the olive oil used to light the Temple Menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum), they dedicated it to their pagan gods. The Greeks were not interested in physically destroying the Jewish people; they wanted to destroy them spiritually. Therefore, instead of destroying the Jewish buildings they tried to obliterate the holiness of the sites. They issued decrees designed to undermine the most essential aspects of Jewish life: banning circumcision, the observance of Shabbat, the Jewish calendar and the study of Torah. Jewish brides were required to submit to the local Greek governor on their wedding night. The decrees against circumcision, Shabbat and the calendar were intended to break down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. By banning Torah study and corrupting the Temple service they tried to sever the connection between the Jews and God. The decree concerning Jewish brides was an attempt to insinuate themselves into the most intimate and holy aspects of Jewish life, to destroy the genealogical chain of Judaism and the purity of Jewish family life and morality.
The Greeks were very successful in their campaign against Judaism. Many Jews were quite content to be Greeks. They adopted Greek clothing, hairstyles and names. There were entire cities in Israel populated by Jews, which to all appearances were Greek cities. To these Jewish Hellenists, the Greeks represented all that was modern, new and scientific, while Judaism was antiquated and out of fashion. They accepted the Greek gods and participated in Greek festivals and athletic events. Many Jewish men who competed in these events, in which the athletes were naked, actually underwent operations in order to look uncircumcised.
Many Jews did remain loyal to Judaism, however, and continued to live as Jews despite the pressure to assimilate and the great risks involved. A small group of these loyalists felt that they were morally obligated to fight the Greeks and to expel them from Israel. They believed that the Jewish people would only be free to live a full Jewish life if they were independent. The kernel of this group was a family of Priests: Mattathias (Matityahu) son of Yochanan the High Priest and his five sons. Known as the Hasmoneans (Chashmonaim), they were led by their brother Judah (Yehudah) “the Maccabee.” Although from a military perspective their cause seemed hopeless, this small army began a guerilla war against the powerful and massive Greek occupying army.
Miraculously, their campaign was successful. The Maccabees defeated the Greek army and entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled and tainted by idolatry. They wanted to light the Menorah and rededicate the Temple to God, but the Greeks had systematically broken the seals and desecrated every amphora of pure oil. They finally found a single jar of oil that still bore the seal of the High Priest, indicating its purity. It contained just enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil was understood as a sign from Heaven that the military victory was indeed brought about by Divine intervention, that the Maccabees had acted in accordance with God’s wishes, and that the Jewish people would survive and continue to bring the light of Torah to the world.
The following year, the Sanhedrin declared a new festival of gratitude and praise16 to God for the miracle of Jewish spiritual survival. Beginning on the 25th of Kislev, and lasting eight days, they called it Chanukah, meaning “dedication” (of the Temple). This festival commemorates the miracles of Chanukah for all time.