Chanukah part 1: Why it’s a terrible holiday

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Chanukah

Don’t worry. Part 2 is titled Chanukah: Why it’s a wonderful holiday.

Chanukah is a problematic celebration. If you were to ask any gentile (and most Jews) what it was about, they’d tell you that a part of the story is the Maccabees conquering the Greeks. And yet military victories are not to be celebrated, since the celebrants would then be deriving joy out of death. It’s also a relatively small celebration, pumped up in order to compete with Christmas. On a ranked list of things that Jews are supposed to celebrate, it might show up in the middle of the list, certainly nowhere near the top. No, Chanukah is this strange bundle of mixed signals, aimed both internally and externally. So let’s start with the story of Chanukah.

As I said, the short story that people seem to know is that the Maccabees fought the Greeks, won, and then used a single night’s worth of oil to keep a sacred light burning for eight days. In that one line you have both the historical context and the miracle that the ‘festival of lights’ celebrates.

Except that’s not the story of Chanukah. It’s not about the Maccabees winning against Greek forces to keep their religion alive. The Greek world was full of change at the time this story takes place, around 170-160 BCE. It was in this time that the Greeks and Jews were intermingling culturally, and a new style of Judaism was coming into vogue: that of a cultural or secular Judaism. Jews were (internally) calling for the repeal of certain Jewish laws that stopped them from fully participating in Greek life. Some wanted to end the prohibition on public nudity so they could join in at the gymnasium. This was also when criticism of Jewish law, written by Jews, became a genre of literature. Some scholars began pointing out that certain pieces of writing could not have been as old as biblical claims. The eventual result was that Judaism split along the line of practice, with Jason heading the highly traditional hasidim, and Menelaus being the emerging voice of the secular and assimilated Jews.

There was lots of back and forth between the groups, there was even more back and forth between the hasidm and king Antiochus. After power struggles and exiles the end result came to this:

  • the hasidim and the Hellenistic Jews were fighting each other politically
  • Antiochus and the hasidim were fighting politically as well
  • Menelaus began espousing for full integration into society

Eventually this integration happened, but at the cost of Jewish law. Once the Jews were covered by common law they lost any authority of Jewish law. That meant the autonomy of the Jews, with their own courts and legal system, was no longer recognized by the government. The trade-off was that Jews could now be full citizens, with all of the rights and responsibilities of other Greeks. However, this meant that suddenly everything Jason and his followers were doing went from politically distasteful to flat out illegal. It’s at this point that the traditional story of Chanukah takes place. There was a battle over the temple that Judah (the son of Matthias, a Jewish priest who fought for the hasidim branch of traditional practice) and the Maccabees were using to practice their outlawed Judaism. It is here that traditional story of Chanukah takes place. It was not just Jew against Greek, but also Jew against Jew. The first casualty of this conflict was actually a secular Jew who was killed by Matthias. In the aftermath of Judah and the Maccabees’ victory they took to seeking out those who had assimilated and forcefully circumcised them (yes, adults) or outright killed them.

This is the bloody story of religious zealots turning against their assimilated family, exacerbated by an obstinate government.

As a secular Jew myself I have a hard time coming to terms with this celebration. While technically it is only a festival celebrating the oil lasting eight days in the aftermath of battle when no more oil could be procured, in reality it’s a celebration of tradition and zealotry overcoming integration, with no one considering any sort of compromise.

With what’s going on right now with how Muslims are being treated, and how this same schism is slitting their religion, it is incredibly relevant and up until now unspoken. I find it baffling that people aren’t looking to this historic event and gleaning lessons to avoid it repeating. Yes, Jews should be out there tearing down the light and fluffy version in order to unwrap the complicated truths of practice and integration. It may mean the sacrifice of a strange and luminous festival, but that seems like a small sacrifice to make in order to better understand what people in the Islamic world are going through.

So maybe this Chanukah it’s time to light two extra candles each night. One for secular and atheists Jews, and another for Muslims who are living through the same ordeal the ancient Jews endured.

Series NavigationChanukah part 2: Why it’s a wonderful holiday >>

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.