Setting the Scene
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 Great 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.
A Greek Tragedy
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.
The Lights of Victory
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 praise 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.
The Spiritual Battle
The underlying theme of the conflict between the Jews and the Greeks is the clash between two diametrically opposed worldviews. [In the Jewish view of reality, everything in the physical world is a reflection of the spiritual. A physical conflict is a superficial manifestation of a deeper spiritual conflict.] There are, of course, many points of contention between Jewish tradition and Greek philosophy. The spiritual essence of the Judeo-Greek conflict however, revolves around a single idea, the definition of reality, according to the great Biblical commentators Nachmanides:
[Our belief is unlike] that Greek [Aristotle] who denied everything that he could not sense. He and his students were arrogant enough to think that anything that they did not arrive at with their own reasoning was not true.
The essence of Jewish belief is that the senses perceive only the surface of an entity. Beneath this plane of physical perception lies a vast spiritual reality. For Jews, truth is not defined by the human being, but by God. Our system of ethics originates in the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, not in a social contract or human convenience. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once commented that there is no such thing as Jewish theology — for theology is the opinion of humans about God, but Judaism is God’s opinions about humanity, “Not what man thinks of God is of primary importance, but what God thinks of man and wants him to do.”
The Greeks believed that their perception defined reality, ethics and truth. The most elegant, beautiful concept constitutes the truth. The Greek ideal of beauty for example, was something that depended on very specific measurements in the facial structure of a person. The more acute the angle formed by the nose and forehead, the more ugly the individual, the more obtuse the angle, the more beautiful. Western society, the successor of Greek culture, exhibits this attitude in its language as well.
The English word “face” has its origins in the Latin “facies” which is related to “facade,” “surface” and “superficial.” In contrast, the Hebrew word for face is panim, which means “inside.” The most beautiful face is one that reveals inner beauty and meaning, not one with idealized angles and texture.
Maimonides points out another theme in the conflict. He maintains that the greatest mistake of Greek philosophy was the belief that matter is eternal and not created. Since in the Greek view God is within nature and not above it, He could not intervene to change nature. This view precludes the possibility of miracles, revelation and Divine Providence. It denies any ultimate purpose in existence. The events of Chanukah provided a dramatic refutation of this Greek worldview.
The Greek Melting Pot
The idea that any one people could be “chosen” or have a Divine revelation was completely contrary to Greek belief. Therefore, the Greek campaign against Judaism and the Jews attempted to eradicate the Jews as a special people. One example of this effort was the Emperor Ptolemy’s translation of the Torah into Greek. The Talmud relates that Ptolemy gathered 72 Sages, placed them in 72 separate cubicles and commanded them to translate the Five Books of Moses into Greek. Miraculously, they all translated the Torah in exactly the same way, and they all made the same thirteen changes from a literal translation in order to prevent the Greeks from misinterpreting the Torah. Although this would appear to be a positive event, perhaps as a step toward disseminating the ideas of monotheism and morality, the Jewish Sages looked upon it as a (Greek?) tragedy.
They knew that the Torah cannot ever be captured in translation. No language other than Hebrew can convey its depth, beauty, infinite layers and nuances. Another tragic aspect of this event was that the Greeks would now present the Torah, the essence of the bond between the Jews and God, as public property to be accessed by anyone. They would argue that the Jewish people no longer had any claim to a “special relationship” with God, since anyone could take Judaism 101 at Athens University. and know Torah just as well. In truth, in order to properly understand Torah, one must have the Oral Torah, which the Greeks did not. The true covenant between God and the Jewish people was manifested in the intimate and personal relationship of the Oral Tradition, even more than in the publicly available and accessible Written Torah.
After millennia of attempts to assimilate us, whether through force or persuasion, we are still here. But, it is not mere physical survival that we celebrate. After all, the genes of other ancient nations have also physically survived. The miracle of Jewish survival is that we have survived with our spiritual heritage intact. When we light the Chanukah candles today we are extensions of the Maccabees, lighting the Menorah in the rededicated Second Temple. In effect, we are continuing the lighting of the Menorah by the Priests in the First Temple and Second Temples. Ultimately, we are even continuing the lighting of the first Menorah in the Sinai Tabernacle by Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses.
The lights of Chanukah are also a potent reminder that physical might and numbers do not necessarily prevail. As the prophet Zechariah stated, “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.” The miracle of Chanukah was the victory in which God delivered “…the powerful into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the violent into the hands of the those who are devoted to the Torah.”