Most of us learned in Hebrew school that the story of Chanukah involved a war between the Greeks and the Jews. However, in truth, the conflict was just as much a fight between Jews and their fellow Jews as it was between the Jews and their Greek oppressors. What our ancestors fought for holds much relevance for us today.
Every year at Chanukah we thank G-d for the miracle that occurred “in those days at this time.” This is because the message of this holiday resonates with Jews of every generation and perhaps more so with our own generation than with any other. Many mistakenly believe that Chanukah is religiously a ‘minor’ holiday, but in actuality the teachings of this holiday and the relevance they hold for today’s modern Jew – especially those of us living in America – make it one of the most important.
One thing that distinguished the Greeks from previous world empires was that they were just as focused on spreading their culture – Hellenism – as they were about gaining money and power. Hellenistic Greek culture, with its emphasis on learning, at first glance seems quite compatible with Jewish culture. The Greeks venerated their philosophers and thinkers. Similarly, Jews honor and respect their Torah scholars. However, in many ways the worldview of the Greeks was completely different from that of the Jews. The Greeks valued the body and physical beauty above all else. In Greek society, deformed or sick infants were routinely abandoned to the elements or even thrown off cliffs to their death. Beautifying the body was considered holy in itself. In fact, many of the gymnasiums in which people exercised in the nude also featured shrines to the Greek gods. To the Greeks, the gods themselves were gods in man’s image.
The Jews believed in only one G-d who created human beings in His image. The Jews understood and valued spirituality over physicality. The Torah the Jews received at Mount Sinai taught them that the world was not perfect and that human beings had to assist G-d in perfecting the world by doing the mitzvot, caring for the weak and the needy, and doing acts of kindness.
The Greeks were relatively tolerant of the cultures they conquered and they extended that same tolerance to the Jews. They were fine with Jews studying Torah as long as they did so in a philosophical, detached, and intellectual manner. What drove the Greeks up a wall was the Jewish value of studying Torah in order to connect with G-d. The Greeks didn’t mind if the Jews wanted to follow some of their rituals even if they did seem to the sophisticated Greeks to be antiquated, anachronistic, and superstitious. What the Greeks couldn’t stand was that the Jews believed in a divine reality higher than rationale thought. They resented that the Jews saw themselves as a distinct and holy people committed to bringing holiness into the world.
Many Jews – especially those of the intelligentsia and the upper class – jumped on the Hellenization bandwagon and adopted the Greek language, Greek dress, Greek education, and, in some cases, even Greek idol worship. It’s quite understandable why many Jews went for Hellenism. After all, Greek culture held a powerful allure. It kindly beckoned the Jew saying: “It’s ok, you can be Jewish. Just don’t be so different! Adopt our enlightened thinking…Maybe add a pig or two to your sacrifices in the Temple…Enjoy some Greek theater…Participate in the new world order!” When Greeks saw that some of the Jews stubbornly refused to comply, they outlawed Sabbath observance, brit milah (ritual circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh (the celebration of the new moon at the start of each month on the Jewish calendar). The significance of these three mitzvot will be explained later.
In many ways, Greek or Hellenic culture is the foundation of secular, Western thought and culture. Unlike many nations that have risen up and tried to annihilate the Jewish people throughout our long history, the Greeks of yesteryear did not seek to harm us physically. The Greeks did not wish to eliminate the Jewish people. However, they desired to destroy Judaism. How many of us Jews today, living comfortably in the United States, free to worship as we choose, would give our lives and fight for our Judaism if our government suddenly decided to outlaw Shabbat, brit milah, or Rosh Chodesh?
The Shabbat irked the Greeks. In a society that only valued a person by what they accomplished, resting one day a week was seen as lazy and immoral. Brit milah upset the Greeks, because they believed that nature and the human body was perfect in itself. The fact that Jews would alter their own bodies was an affront to everything the Greeks held dear. Rosh Chodesh represented that Jews operate on a different time table than the rest of the world. If the Jews were to be properly assimilated into Greek culture, this simply could not do. But how many of us would be prepared to fight for these mitzvot? How many of us recognize and appreciate the sanctity of resting on Shabbat? How many Jews believe having a brit milah is a barbaric ritual of the past and how many American Jews have even heard of Rosh Chodesh?
In ancient times, one Jewish priestly family known as the Maccabees could not stomach the Greeks and what they were doing to Judaism. They’d also had enough of the Hellenist Jews making a mockery of their religion. These few courageous, stubborn, and proud individuals rose up against the Greeks and the Hellenists. Their victory boosted the morale of the Jewish people and re-instilled the fundamental Jewish pride that was at risk of being lost forever.
We live in confusing times. The openness and tolerance that defines American and Western society seems to encourage many of us to put aside our Judaism – or at least those aspects of it that separate us and define us as a distinct entity. Universities (modern-day embodiments of Greek culture) with their emphasis on academic achievement combined with hedonism discourage individuals from trying to transcend the physical and connect to G-d, the Source of all Creation. On Chanukah we light a menorah to show that the holiness and truth of Judaism and the Jewish people should shine brightly. We specifically light our menorahs near the door to demonstrate that we must impact the world. Jewish values must make this world a holier, kinder, and better place – a place in which G-d feels comfortable dwelling.
Most of us Jews are neither Hellenists nor Maccabees. Most contemporary Jews living in America possess such insufficient Jewish educations that they are not even able to make an informed decision about who they are. Yes, it’s true that most Jews today do not follow the majority of Jewish laws and customs of their ancestors, but the vast majority do not do so out of willfulness, but out of ignorance. Most Jews in this generation have been so cut off from traditional Judaism and their heritage of Torah and mitzvot that they hardly recognize their own tradition. But, we need not worry. It does not need to stay this way. If we allow the fire of our Chanukah menorahs to ignite a spark in our hearts and in our souls, we can summon the fearless and proud Maccabee inside each of us and do more to learn and grow in our Judaism. Like the shamash candle that is used to light the other candles on the menorah, we can kindle a flame of passion for Judaism in the hearts of our fellow Jews.
For the first time we Jews are not forced by external circumstances such as rampant anti-Semitism to be Jewish. No longer are we protected by the spiritual safety provided by the shtetl. No longer are we confined to the ghetto. For the first time in Jewish history we are not only tolerated, but accepted. Many of us assimilate into our benevolent host culture rather than use our freedom to be Jewish in a positive and spirited way. The choice is in our hands. We can choose to marry out, assimilate, and disappear. It’s very easy to do today! Or we can stand up for what’s right and discover more about the truth and beauty of Torah and why it is an eternal gift to humanity. We can do our job as Jews by being a light unto the nations or we can simply disappear into the family of nations. The choice is ours. So who are you going to be – a Hellenist or a Maccabee?