Hanukkah's Freedom Fighters

The story of the holiday captures much of the paradox that has faced Judaism

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

National Review Online, December 22, 2000. More by Kopel on Hanukkah.

Starting on the evening of December 21, Jewish families all over America began lighting candles to celebrate Hanukkah. The story of the holiday captures much of the paradox that has always faced Judaism.

To understand the events that led to Hanukkah, you have to understand the intensity of Jewish opposition to assimilation. And to understand that opposition, you have to understand the preceding Jewish experience with assimilation in the centuries that span much of the Old Testament's history.

After escaping from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew tribes had invaded Canaan, and only partially succeeded in displacing the Canaanites. (The Canaanites may have invaded by sea, and kicked some other folks out about a century before the Hebrews showed up. The language we today know as Hebrew may originally have been the Canaanite language.)

The Hebrews believed in YHVH, while the Canaanites worshipped the Ba'als, the lords of Canaanite nature religion which practiced human sacrifice. There was plenty of intermarriage, and plenty of switching of religious affiliation, in both directions.

King Solomon (who succeeded King David) was especially energetic in marrying a huge number of foreign, non-Hebrew wives, from areas that King David or he had conquered. Many of these wives were followers of the Ba'als. Yet many Canaanite followers of the Ba'als and many Jews resisted assimilation, and so a struggle continued for centuries.

From shortly after King Solomon's death, until the Judean Kingdom was conquered by Babylon several hundred years later, control of the Judean Kingdom(s) see-sawed between factions favoring YHVH and factions favoring the Ba'als. This internal struggle helped turn the powerful Kingdom of David and Solomon into a pipsqueak that was easily crushed by Babylon.

When Babylon conquered Judea, the Jews were carried away into captivity in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). Two centuries later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and decided to allow the Jews to return home, to set up a colony friendly to Persia. When the Jews got back to Judea, they set about rebuilding Jerusalem and its Temple. Under the leadership of Ezra, they remembered all the troubles that had resulted from intermarriage. This time around, any kind of relationship with Gentiles was forbidden.

Around this time, scholars suggest, the Book of Ruth may have been written as protest against hyper-exclusivism. Ruth is the story of a Moabite woman's marriage to a Jew, and happy relationship with his family; the Moabite woman is one of King David's ancestors.

After a while, the little Jewish colony was conquered again, this time by Alexander the Great. When he died, his empire was divided among his generals. The Seleucid Empire — based in Syria, and run by Greeks and Graecophiles — had control of Judea. The Seleucids began imposing forced Hellenization on the areas they controlled, including Judea.

Greek culture was in most ways superior to other cultures of the time, and most folks in the Seleucid Empire, including many Jews, went along without protest. But other Jews — those led by Judah the Maccabee — resisted fiercely. The four Books of the Maccabees (which are canonical in some Christian churches) tell the story of this confrontation. There's the mother who watched her seven sons be tortured to death rather than eat pork — and who urged each son in turn to be strong, and not to let his purity be defiled, no matter what the cost.

And, of course, there's the historical account of the war of national liberation that began around 167 B.C., led by Mattathias Maccabee, then by his son Judas. Their last name means "the hammer" — and that's exactly what they did to the Syrians, leading a few thousand guerillas against the much larger Syrian standing army.

Although formal Jewish law can get extremely complex, there is one overriding rule: regardless of what any other law states, it is always permissible to act to save a life. The principle found its formal origin in the days of the Maccabean revolution against the Syrian army. Previous rebellions had failed; because Jewish law forbade bearing arms on the Sabbath, enemy forces would simply wait until Saturday to attack, and slaughter their unarmed foes.

The Maccabees, however, determined that the preservation of life was the overriding value of all the Law. So when the Syrians attacked one Saturday, the Maccabees took up their swords and bows and fought back, winning an important victory over their surprised opponents. The Maccabees continued to abjure offensive operations on the Sabbath.

In December 165, the Maccabees drove into Jerusalem and recaptured the Temple which had been defiled by Greek rituals for the last three years. The eight days of Hanukkah come from the eight days that a tiny supply of oil miraculously burned at the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem, in celebration of the Temple's return to Jewish control. More generally, Hanukkah also celebrates history's first recorded revolution to stop government repression of religion.

Eventually, a completely independent Jewish kingdom was established. As the new kingdom grew in power, it took over regions not ruled by the Jews since the great days of Kings David and Solomon eight centuries before. The neighboring lands of Samaria and Idumea were once again under the control of an Israelite government.

Samaritans, Idumeans, and Israelites had been hostile neighbors almost as long as they could remember history. The Samaritans believed in YHVH, the same god worshiped by the Israelites. But the Samaritans believed that only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) was true scripture. In addition, the Samaritans had a holy mountain — Mount Horeb (a/k/a Mount Sinai) — which they believed to be YHVH's true, exalted dwelling place. The Israelites, on the other hand, believed that the Temple at Jerusalem was YHVH's real home.

Unlike the Samaritans, the Idumeans had not been followers of YHVH. But when resurgent Israel conquered Idumea, many Idumeans were converted to Judaism, often at the point of a sword.

Thus, the Israeli kingdom included three different ethnic groups, all of whom worshiped YHVH. The rising, powerful kingdom must have been considered by many people to be the fulfillment of the prophets' promise of a new, greater Israel.

But there would no such enduring, great kingdom. The nation failed because of an insurmountable problem within Judaism.

Although Judea, Samaria, and Idumea were part of a single country, the Jews (the Judeans) remained suspicious of the Idumeans. The Jewish Bible taught that Jew and Idumean had been enemies since 1800 B.C., roughly speaking. The Jews were the children of Jacob, while the Idumeans were the descendants of the Moabites, who were the descendants of Jacob's big brother Esau. Jacob stole Esau's inheritance, and while Esau eventually forgave Jacob, Jews and Idumeans came to no such reconciliation.

The Israeli kingdom was conquered in 43 B.C. and turned into a colony of the Roman Empire. A key player in the Roman conquest was Antipater, the Governor of Idumea. Antipater was a brilliant leader and, being an Idumean, was a follower of YHVH. If Antipater and the Idumeans had stood together with the Jews, against the Romans, the Kingdom dedicated to YHVH might have been preserved. But because the Jews treated the Idumeans — fellow believers in YHVH — as fourth-class citizens, the Idumeans sided with the Roman invaders, and the Israeli Kingdom fell.

So the Maccabean revolution succeeded in launching a century-long era of Jewish greatness, an era which foundered on the very rock which had been the foundation of the revolution: strict adherence to the Law, racial exclusivity, and hatred of the Gentiles — even the YHVH-worshiping ones.

Of course a few decades later, this Roman colony saw the beginning of Christianity. Whatever one thinks about Christianity in theological terms, there is little doubt that in historical terms Christianity solved one of the dilemmas exemplified by the rise and fall of the Israeli kingdom in the first and second centuries B.C.: finding a way to share the moral culture of the Jewish people with a Gentile world.

Today, of course, Jews continue to wrestle with issues of assimilation and exclusivity, and different groups offer different answers. Whatever one thinks of these questions, it's worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on the messages of Hanukkah, and on the positive lessons that people of all faith can learn from the courageous freedom fighters from almost twenty-two centuries ago: life is stronger than death; freedom is stronger than slavery; courage and faith are stronger than fear. Happy Hanukkah!

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