Chanuka: Jew vs. Jew or Jew vs. Gentile?

I recently came across a New York Times book review by Gal Beckerman, as he reviewed five new books about Jewish identity and what will sustain it into the future.  In the article, he pointed out that despite the horrific Pittsburgh shooting, antisemitism is not the greatest threat to the Jewish experience in America today; assimilation is.  Seventy-two percent of non-orthodox Jews marry outside their faith.  Almost a third of millennial Jews identify themselves as without religion.  The last Holocaust survivors are dying and the connection between the American Jew in Israel is slowly eroding.  The choice, according to Tal Keinan, the author of one of the books that she reviewed, is “Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

How should we, orthodox Jews, feel about the fact that orthodoxy, which was supposed to die in America after the Holocaust, is on the rise, and the other denominations are moving towards assimilation and are on the decline?  Perhaps the portrayal of the Chanuka story in Rabbinic literature can provide some guidance.

The Gemara in Shabbat describes the holiday of Chanukah as being one when Greeks defiled the Temple and defiled the menorah.  After the Jews defeated the Greeks and entered the Temple, they only found enough oil to last for one day and it miraculously lasted for eight days; therefore, they celebrated this holiday.  The additional prayer that we recite during birkat hamazon and shemonah esrei called “al hanissim” gives thanks to God for defeating the Greeks who wanted to destroy us spiritually.  A lot has been said about the difference between the Gemara, which focuses on the miracle of oil versus the al hanissim prayer, which focuses on the military victory, but both the Gemara and the al hanissim prayer share a common theme: the enemy.  The enemy in both instances is the Greek.  The Gemara states, “she’k’she’nikhn’su hayvenaim,” or “when the Greeks entered the Temple.”  The al hanissim prayer states, “k’she’amdah malkhut Yavan,” or “when the mighty Greek empire stood.”  In both instances, the Greeks are the enemy.  The good Jew defeated the evil Gentile and the focus of our Sages, who established the prayer and wrote the Gemara, was not a political or a territorial battle, but it was a cultural battle.  We were in danger of spiritual extinction because of Greek beliefs.  Even though politically our enemy were the Syrians from Syria and not Greeks from Greece, nevertheless, our enemy is called by its cultural name, Yavan, or Greece, because the real battle was a cultural battle.

But we all know that the enemy was not only the Gentile.  The battle of Chanukah was not only a battle of Jew against Gentile, but it was a battle of Jew against Jew.  The first chapter of the Book of Maccabees states:  “In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.”  This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles.  So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.”  Certain elements of Hellenism reread historical scriptures as being far more universalistic, and they reduced the Torah to its ethical core.  They did not want to abolish the Law completely but they wanted to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture, for example, the ban on nudity, which kept pious Jews out of the gymnasium and the stadium.  Eventually, a movement developed which was similar to modern Jewish movements which sought to strip the Torah of its ritual content.

Even the High Priesthood was corrupt.  Even before Antiochus banned the practice of Judaism, Jason, the brother of Onias the High Priest, bought the High Priesthood from Antiochus and introduced more extreme Hellenization and even greater rejection of Torah and mitzvoth.  We even read of a story in the Book of Maccabees of how a Hellenizer is even willing to sacrifice a pig on the altar until he is killed by Matityahu.  The enemy, then, is not only the Gentile, but the enemy is the corrupt Jew, the Jew who tries to destroy Judaism.  In the story of Chanuka, we defeated not only the Syrian Greeks, but we also defeated the Hellenized Jew.  What’s fascinating, though, is that in the Gemara and in the special Chanuka prayer of Al Hanissim there is no mention of this battle.

It seems to me that our Sages are taking a definitive position regarding how to relate to those Jews who may not observe the traditions the way that the orthodox do.  Do we view them as enemies or traitors whom we defeated in the story of Chanuka or do we view them as victims who were seduced by the temptations of the outside world?  Our Sages seemed to have chosen the latter approach.  The Hellenized Jews are not our enemies.  We do not celebrate our victory over them on Chanuka.  Our Sages seemed to have deliberately ignored them in one aspect of the holiday; however, it seems that they included them in another aspect of the holiday.

After all, there a mitzvah of pirsumei nisa, of doing something different to mark a miracle on Pesach, Purim and Chanuka.  On Pesach, we drink four cups of wine.  On Purim, we read the megillah.  On Chanuka, we light the menora.  Pirsumei nisa does not necessarily mean to publicize the miracle because after all, how do we publicize the miracle of Pesach by drinking four cups of wine in our own home?  Rather, pirsumei nisa means to do something different to publicize a miracle from which our ancestors benefitted.  Therefore, what’s the difference between the pirsumei nisa of Pesach and Purim, on the one hand, and the pirsumei nisa of Chanukah, on the other hand?  It’s about how we relate to the non-observant or Hellenized Jew.  On Pesach, when I’m drinking my four cups of wine, the unaffiliated Jew is in his own home and he doesn’t see me drink the wine.  On Purim, when I’m reading the megillah, the unaffiliated Jew is not coming to shul so he doesn’t hear the megillah.  On Purim and Pesach, the mitzvoth of pirsumei nisa don’t necessarily reach every single Jew.

However, on Chanukah, everyone sees the lights.  Our Sages tell us that, unless it’s a time of danger, we must light outside so that every Jew sees the light and at the very least we should light by the window so that all the passer byes see the light.  On Chanuka, we share the mitzva with others.  We do not celebrate the victory of the traditional Jews over the Hellenized Jews.  We aren’t smug or condescending to those denominations who may be on the decline.  We simply want to share the Chanuka light with our fellow Jews, observant or not.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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