Benjamin Birely

Hanukah, Purim, And Why Israel Needs More Hanukah

Photo Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

It’s no surprise that the Hasmoneans have a complicated reputation in Jewish tradition. Despite their heroism, the Maccabean revolt produced a short-lived, dysfunctional and Hellenized priestly dynasty that paved the way for Roman rule.

“Judah Macabee”, Arthur Szyk

Within a generation of the revolt, its second major leader and the nephew of Judah Maccabee, John Hyrcanus, was forced to (re)surrender Jerusalem to the Seleucids after a devastating siege on the city and back them in their war against the Iranian Parthians.

So much for Judean sovereignty.

His son, Aristobulus I, who starved his own mother to death and possibly murdered his brothers upon seizing power, took the title “basileus” — or king in Greek. The first man in Israel’s history to be both king and cohen gadol.

He loved the Greek title  — in fact, a passionate Hellenist, he loved most things Greek.

While his impressive territorial conquests, destruction of Samaria and alleged forced-conversions of Itureans were his claim to fame, he was by definition an illegitimate usurper  —  for a cohen can never be a true, Davidic King of Israel.

His younger brother, Alexandros Jannaeus (again with the Greek names), sided with the Sadducees and violently persecuted their ideological opponents, the rabbis or the Perushim/Pharisees, who were the forerunners of what we now call Rabbinic Judaism.

And his sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, were ultimately responsible for inviting (and succumbing to) Roman intervention— resulting in full Roman control of Judea, Samaria and the Galilee.

The last Hasmonean king, Antigonus II, asked Julius Caesar for political and military aid before making a last-ditch attempt at bucking Roman rule with Parthian help. In the end he failed miserably and was executed by the Romans, thus ending the messy dynasty once and for all.

In short, as far as Jewish sovereignty, self-determination and religious integrity go, the Hasmonean track record was checkered to the say the least.

This is one reason the Talmud doesn’t address Hanukah the same way it does other important holidays or observances.

“What is Hanukah?”, the Gemara suddenly asks on Shabbat 21b in the middle of an equally abrupt discussion on the hows, wheres and whats of Hanukah wicks and oils  — as if we should be asking this question ourselves; as if the miracle (and meaning) of Hanukah isn’t so obvious.

The answer? Not the story of heroic Maccabean guerrilla fighters in the Judean hills, but that of a one-day oil supply miraculously lasting eight days, enabling the successful purification and rededication of the Temple — the spiritual and religious center of Israel.

Understandably, the rabbis fixed the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukah candles precisely to mark this miracle  — and not to celebrate the Hasmonean dynasty.

However, unlike Purim, there’s no positive commandment to have a festive, joyous meal (the Rambam disagrees, but he’s a lone voice). Both Hanukah and Purim celebrate Jewish survival in the face of seemingly impossible odds, but there’s a key difference.

In the Book of Esther, Haman seeks to destroy Jews for being Jews. Genocide for the sake of genocide. The miracle of Purim isn’t just his downfall, but also our opportunity to physically defend ourselves against annihilation (lest we forget the part of the story where the Jews rise up and kill over 75,000 of their enemies).

Hanukah is an entirely different story. Antiochus IV didn’t want genocide. He wanted political stability and a Hellenist world order that had no tolerance for rebellious zealots trying to oust local, Hellenized elites. Rather than a story of Jews being saved from a genocidal maniac, Hanukah is the story of a group of Jews choosing to revolt against a specific imperial ideology and set of hegemonic spiritual and cultural values in the name of Torah and Judaism  —  or, perhaps more accurately, Judean-ism.

As the adage goes: Purim was a fight for the Jewish body, Hanukah for the Jewish soul.

And so, on Purim we’re commanded to celebrate with our bodies  — to make a seudah, drink and rejoice (the costumes only started in the Middle Ages under European Christian influence). But on Hanukah there’s no seudah, no wild drinking, no costumes… there are lights. Lights illuminating the long, dark winter nights and representing the miraculous rededication of the core of Jewish spirituality: the Temple in Jerusalem.

Modern Israel is very good at the Purim narrative. The entire thrust of modern political Zionism(s) was creating a safe haven for all Jews  — i.e. for Jewish bodies, even those who have limited Jewish ancestry  — and every stream of Zionism from liberal Zionism to Religious Zionism focuses on Jews physically surviving and thriving in the Land of Israel at any cost.

Purim in Tel Aviv, Photo credit: Oded Balilty/AP

Israeli culture is one big Purim  —  a vibrant, boisterous, often blockish, in-your-face celebration of Jewish physical existence, strength and dominance.  Even those religious Zionist voices who advocate for more Jewish education and stronger Jewish identity have very little to offer when it comes to Jewish philosophy, spirituality, ethics or musar.

A close look at Israel today, from Kiryat Arba to Tel Aviv, shows Jewish identity in Israel is largely about being Jewish for the sake of being Jewish, a Jewish state for the sake of a Jewish state, national strength and pride for the sake of strength and pride  — as if simply being isn’t just a start but the whole point…

As if Tel Aviv’s night life, the latest app, product or startup, Black Friday shopping, and frequent trips abroad are all enough. Or, as if simply being “baalei habayit“, showing the Arabs who’s boss, building a new settlement outpost solely for the sake of more Jews simply existing in Judea and Samaria— again, at any cost  — are enough.

Almost as if no challenging moral, ethical or spiritual responsibilities and dimensions come with being here  —  or with being at all.

But what about our spirit? What about Jewish values, responsibilities, ideas, ethics, morality and soul-searching (secular or religious)? What about the light? What about Hanukah?

The Gemara’s answer to “What is Hanukah?” can be read as a challenge to look beyond our physical survival and might in the Land of Israel and ask ourselves: What are our values? Where is our light?

To look beyond our bodies, and search for our soul.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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