In the Bible used by Catholics, a pair of books celebrates an extraordinary Jewish military success that took place in 165 B.C.E. in the land of Israel. Surprisingly those two books are not included in the Hebrew Scriptures; nor do they appear in the Protestant canon. Can you name them? Hint: There is a statue at the United States Military Academy of the hero of that long-ago victory. In fact, the ancient Jewish soldier is the only non-American to merit such an honor at West Point.
Still need a hint? The same hero has been immortalized in a George Frideric Handel oratorio, a verse-play by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a novel by Howard Fast.
The answer is the Books of the Maccabees, and the victorious general is Judah Maccabee, sometimes known by his Greek name, Judas Maccabaeus.
Judah’s father, Mathathias, and his five sons were the leaders of a popular armed revolt against the powerful Greco-Syrian ruling empire of the day headed by the ruthless despot Antiochus IV. Alexander the Great had died about 160 years earlier, and Antiochus ruled a part of Alexander’s once-extensive realm in the ancient Middle East. While Alexander had generally been accepting of the diverse populations under his control, Antiochus had a very different view.
Like many other tyrants in history, Antiochus demanded from his subjects total uniformity, not merely unity. This emperor adopted a particularly harsh policy toward the defiant and irksome Jews, who continued to insist on faithfully maintaining their religious beliefs, traditions and rituals.
To crush such a tenacious people, Antiochus officially banned the teaching of the Torah and outlawed the observance of the Sabbath, annual festivals and ritual circumcision. Antiochus’s odious restrictions aimed at the heart of Jewish identity and continuity. In a supreme act of contempt, Antiochus provocatively placed an idolatrous statue of the Greek god Zeus within the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This idolatry, an ultimate desecration, angered many Jews, including Mathathias and his sons.
But other Jews were quite willing to submit to the emperor’s dictatorial decrees: “And many of Israel consented to his service, and they sacrificed to idols, and profaned the Sabbath” (1 Macc 1:45).
In an attempt to assimilate themselves into the majority Hellenistic culture, some Jews willingly changed their names from the traditional Hebrew to the more acceptable Greek versions. Their motto seemed to be the well-known maxim: “To get along, you’ve got to go along.” As a result, there was a sharp split among Jews between the faithful adherents of the ancient covenant and the assimilationists.
The breaking point that marked the beginning of an armed rebellion against Antiochus came in the Maccabees’ home village of Modi’in, a town near Jerusalem, when the emperor’s soldiers demanded that Jews publicly worship an idol. In an act of defiance, the aged Mathathias lifted his sword and killed the imperial soldiers, as well as a Jew who was willing to perform the humiliating act of idolatry. Mathathias then uttered the battle cry of the Hanukkah story that has echoed through history for over 2,100 years: “And Mathathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: ‘Every one that has zeal for the Law and maintains the covenant, let him follow me’” (1 Macc 2:27).
The Maccabees and their small number of followers quickly fled Modi’in and inaugurated one of the first successful guerrilla campaigns in history. Judah was the commander of the roving band that carefully avoided the major population centers of Israel, especially the capital city of Jerusalem. Instead, these guerrillas successfully fought the much larger and better equipped forces of Antiochus in battles conducted on the Maccabees’ terms and, of course, always inside their beloved homeland.
It is a story that has often been repeated. The outnumbered rebellious “locals” know the geography and culture of their countries far better than the larger armies of armed “outsiders” who vainly attempt to stamp out an insurrection. After a bitter three-year struggle, the militarily gifted Judah and his guerrillas recaptured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, smashed the hated idols and all other evidence of the imperial occupation, and rededicated the sanctuary to God’s service.
What Hanukkah Means
According to tradition, the neglected Eternal Light in the Temple (every synagogue in the world today has such a light, which symbolizes the Temple sanctuary and God’s enduring presence) had only enough oil to last a single day; but after the Maccabees rekindled it, the tiny cruse of oil lasted not one but eight days. Ever since, Jews have rejoiced in that remarkable occurrence. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, celebrates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. This year the holiday begins at sunset on Friday, Dec. 15, and concludes on the evening of Dec. 23.
Judah’s victory not only enabled Jews to regain their political sovereignty; but it also stemmed the ongoing assimilation and the increasing loss of religious identity. Many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, believe that without Hanukkah, the Maccabees’ victory of the few over the many, Judaism might well have disappeared from the stage of history and with it the religious community into which Jesus was born a century and a half later. Without Judah’s triumph, there might not have been the Jewish spiritual soil from which Christianity emerged.
It seems clear that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. The holiday is specifically mentioned in John 10:22-23: “The feast of the Dedication was then taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter. And Jesus walked about in the Temple area on the Portico of Solomon.”
The rulers who followed Judah (the great warrior himself died in battle five years after his Hanukkah triumph) were among the worst in Jewish history. Corruption and internal strife ensued, and less than 200 years after the Maccabean triumph, the Roman Empire, even more brutal and cruel than Antiochus, became the new occupying power in Israel.
With the earlier successful struggle of Judah Maccabee serving as an inspiring model, the Jews fought four wars against the Romans, the last one occurring in 135 C.E. But, sadly, there was no second Hanukkah; there were no more victories over an “Evil Empire.” The Romans won every conflict and destroyed the Holy Temple in 70 C.E. Nearly 1,900 years passed before a Jewish state was finally reborn in 1948. Little wonder that the Israelis who achieved independence nearly 60 years ago are frequently called “Modern Maccabees.”
For nearly 700 years after the Maccabean success, the ancient rabbis were troubled by the military aspect of the Hanukkah story. For a time they downplayed the holiday when they compared it with the solemn, majestic and defining holy days described in the Hebrew Scriptures—including Passover, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Shavuot (the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai). So neglected was the Maccabean victory that some rabbis even asked, “What is Hanukkah?”
But despite the rabbis’ unease with Judah Maccabee’s victory, Hanukkah has become a joyous festival celebrated every year by both youngsters and adults. Children eagerly anticipate the Hanukkah lights, when a newly lit candle is added each evening to the home menorah, culminating on the festival’s eighth and last night, when the candelabrum is fully aglow. Youngsters receive eagerly anticipated gifts from family and friends, and they play Hanukkah games by spinning dreidels, or tops. Boys and girls often receive pieces of Hanukkah chocolate wrapped in gold foil paper that duplicates the designs of ancient Israelite coins. Hot potato pancakes and miniature sugar-coated donuts are traditional Hanukkah delicacies, even though both foods are bad for digestion, dieting and cholesterol. But then, it’s Hanukkah, and the holiday comes just once a year.
In contemporary terms, Hanukkah can be described as a struggle for religious liberty, what we today call pluralism. Antiochus’s worldview was one that obliterated minority ethnic and religious groups and replaced them with a suffocating uniformity of belief, behavior and spirit. The Nazi slogan, “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!” is not much different from the demands of Antiochus. In fact, the right of minorities to be free to practice their faith, enhance their culture and strengthen their group identity is always feared by leaders who seek to impose total control upon a diverse society.
Hanukkah and Christmas
Although the holidays occur during the same time of the year, Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas.” Nor is there such a thing as a “Hanukkah bush,” a euphemistic name assimilating Jews (we still have them!) have given to the Christmas trees that are unfortunately still present in some Jewish homes during December.
The message of Hanukkah is clear: each faith community must be free to observe its sacred holidays, rituals and liturgies in perfect freedom. And holidays must always represent the authentic expression of each religious group. A false or forced symbiosis, in this case of Hanukkah and Christmas, Judaism and Christianity, is a disservice to both faiths.
A watering down of two historic spiritual traditions dishonors the memory and the sacrifice of the Maccabees, who fought in order that future generations would be free of tyranny, despotism and conformity.