About 22 centuries ago a chapter in Jewish history marked the rededication of the Temple. The events were excluded from the canonisation of the Tanach, but retained as the last of the non-biblical festivals that would occur prior to a 2000 year exile and the re-establishment of a Jewish nation.
From an historic perspective, military victory is the focus of the event, even as described by the Al Hanisim prayer. Yet on a very simple level the celebration of Chanukah is not a victory celebration of conquest. The focus of our observance is not a “victory parade”, a form of Jewish ANZAC day. Rather it is the religious freedom and spiritual purity of the Temple service that is recreated through our celebration.
This makes sense if you consider that the Maccabees were not fighting for sovereign independence. The Greek rule was relatively benevolent, and represented modernisation, civil progress, and even tolerance, so long as that tolerance embraced a form of “multiculturalism”, a proverbial melting pot of civilisation and religion. Until such time as a zealous conqueror by the name of Antiochus met resistance to imposed idolatry, at which time the regime prohibited the observance of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Brit Milah under penalty of death.
Jeff Jacoby describes the story as follows:
The fight to reclaim Jewish religious autonomy began in 167 BC. In the town of Modi’in, an elderly priest named Mattathias refused a Syrian order to sacrifice to an idol. When an apostate Jew stepped forward to comply, Mattathias killed the man and tore down the altar. Then he and his five sons took to the hills and launched a guerrilla war against the armies of the empire.
When Mattathias died, his third son, Judah Maccabee, took command. He and his band of fighters were impossibly outnumbered, yet they won one miraculous victory after another. In 164 BC, they recaptured the Temple, which they cleansed and purified and rededicated to G-d.
It is often noted that the Maccabee brothers would be somewhat bemused by the way in which Chanukah is so embraced by secular culture today, and ironically placed on a pedestal as some type of Jewish equivalent to Christmas by the proponents of “interfaith relationships”. As a minor festival, Chanukah is probably celebrated more than it would otherwise be, solely due to its proximity to Christmas, and is certainly recognised more by mainstream media because of this coincidental quirk of the calendar. Yet given that the Maccabees were fighting against the defilement of the Temple with idolatry, assimilationist attitidues and the loss of Jewish identity, it is a great shame that in Western countries Chanukah seems to have to elbow itself into the space of multicultural recognition in order to compete with popular Christian tradition.
However, the temptation is totally understandable. Let’s face it, the Greeks had a great society. It was modern and contemporary, with culture, arts, sport, and the ancient equivalent of day spas, personal trainers and pilates.
It is wonderful that over the next week there will be a number of community Chanukah events for the Perth Jewish community in a carnival like atmosphere. What troubles me is that if you stop and ask the majority of people attending about what they are celebrating, their understanding is likely to be very superficial. They may mention the Greeks, the Maccabee revolt, the flagon of pure oil and the symbolic miracle, but for many people, that’s about as far as they get. I further wonder whether, if they transported their current lifestyle approach towards Jewish living into the era of the Chanukah story, whether most of them would side with the material comfort and liberty offered by Greek society ahead of the effort and discipline that they would need to extend to maintain their Jewish tradition and observance. Do they actually realise that they are celebrating the triumph of the Chashmoniam over the Hellenists? Do they truly stand for the celebration of Torah values over secular values?
Or is the general connection of Jews to their Judaism based on attitudes that are more relaxed and comfortable? They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat! After all, Judaism needs a few more holidays that aren’t spoiled by halachic dictum and endless hours trapped inside Shule. While we are at it, let’s accept assimilation into our community and allow Torah law to be interpreted to embrace Jewish gay pride. Let’s run Jewish functions and lifecycle events that aren’t kosher, and trade away the “Zionist” aspirations of Judah the Maccabee to return the Cohanim to light the Menora in the Beit Hamikdash.
Whilst sadly many Jews seem content to forgo the essence of their birthright and exchange their spiritual quest for Assyrian Greek austerity (pun intended), the light of Chanukah has remained kindled into our time. The observant minority have ensured this.
There comes a point where the essential celebration of Chanukah has changed so much that it no longer holds or resembles the message of the festival. It is exemplified by the vast majority of community members who are prepared to come and bounce on a jumping castle and buy a latke, but show no care towards also standing amongst the kehillah and singing Maoz Tzur in the Beit Knesset.
So too, there comes a point where the essential message of Judaism is also barstardised to the point that it is no longer Jewish. In recent times the Perth Jewish community and many of its organisations have become far too complacent with respect to their acceptance of the forces that threaten Jewish continuity, sometimes tacit, sometimes overt.
Chanukah is a revolt against assimilation and a revolt against cultural Judaism that is devoid of Torah and yirat shamiem. Let’s have a chag Chanukat sameach, but ensure that we also pause as we light the Chanukiah to remember exactly what it was that the Maccabim were fighting to preserve.