Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom, right? Or does it celebrate faith in God? Or political independence? All of these are partially true, but they all miss what is at the center of the actual Hanukkah story.
To begin with, it is important to understand the context of the Hasmonean revolt; which was just as much a civil war as a war of liberation: Jewish elites, including priestly families, had been won over by Greek culture and began to view certain Jewish practices like circumcision as barbaric. Diluted and syncretic as it was, the version of Greek culture adopted throughout the region celebrated human reason, technological progress and the appreciation of beauty and order. It was widely adopted because of its intuitive appeal and its tangible benefits. To a large extent, this is what the Hasmoneans were fighting.
Hence the Hasmonean-led struggle against the Jewish Hellenists and their military and political sponsors in Antioch was outwardly seen as a victory for provincial darkness over civilization and progress. From such a perspective, the comparison of the Hanukkah story with the recent Taliban victory in Afghanistan is not totally out of place.
The above leads to an obvious question. If Greek culture was so enlightened and progressive, why should we celebrate its – albeit local and temporary – defeat? The answer comes from a different realm – one that arguably precedes wisdom and knowledge – and that is justice. At its most basic, justice forbids achieving one’s own ends by the coercion of another independent actor. Though a community may coerce its own members for the good of the group, when an individual, community or nation imposes its will upon another, it is unjust – even when it is ostensibly for that other’s benefit.
Many make the mistake of thinking that coercion can only be physical. Yet coercive power is not only expressed by soldiers and states, it is also expressed by cultures and ideas. Understanding how physical coercion operates, however, can help us understand how it plays out in other realms: Most wars are won by superior weapons and the ability to deploy more properly trained troops; and there is absolutely no connection between these factors and the moral claims that may or may not back them up. The terrible injustice of “might makes right” can be seen even more clearly in the realm of the individual – according to such a principle, we would all be at the mercy of anyone better armed or joined by one or two of his friends.
We would like to think that ideas are different – that in the conflict of ideas, the best idea is what emerges victorious. Thankfully, over the long term, this is often true. But it is far from always the case. What is true about physical weaponry is also frequently true about intellectual weaponry. Anyone familiar with formal debating knows that a strong team will be able to defeat its opponents almost no matter how ridiculous the position they are arguing may be.
In the context of Hanukkah, the Greeks had developed a strong intellectual tradition that often overwhelmed its competitors. That strength did not mean all of its ideas were necessarily right and those of its opponents wrong. It primarily meant that they had better weapons.
It is in this light that we can understand anti-colonialist writers such as Mahatma Gandhi and Frantz Fanon. They too spoke about colonialism’s injustice as having a very important intellectual and cultural component and not only being limited to physical conquest. It is not just European guns that allowed their owners to dominate most of Africa and Asia. Even more than this, it was the development and sophistication of European thought – such that indigenous peoples could easily be convinced that they were being won over by superior ideas.
The bottom line is that in the same way as conquering another nation simply because one has better weapons unjust, so too is such a conquest in the intellectual realm unjust. This idea was not lost on Rav Kook, who in discussing the respect that we will all eventually need to have for the ideas of others, points out:
And even things that appear… contradictory, only via the gathering of all the parts and all the elements and all opinions that appear to differ… only through them will the light of truth and justice appear… (emphasis added) Olat Reiyah, I 330.
A nation does not only have the right to maintain its territorial integrity, it also has a right to maintain its cultural integrity. True, the natural development of a culture usually involves the gradual importation of foreign ideas. In fact, so long as that happens incrementally, organically and on a nation’s own terms, it enriches that culture. The problem arises when it is coerced – not only militarily, but also intellectually.
Of course, Jews do not celebrate universal cultural autonomy on Hanukkah. We celebrate the salvation, and resulting perpetuation, of our own culture – a culture that makes us unique and has allowed us to enrich the rest of the world in so many ways. Nevertheless, though Jews may have a right to feel their contribution has been particularly oversized, does not every culture have a unique contribution to make? Hanukkah teaches that this only happens when there is a strong sense of justice in the world – a justice that respects the complete autonomy of the other.
Hence this minor Jewish holiday of little lights can serve as a great light for all peoples. Its story can serve as a source of inspiration for every nation that claims the right to be itself, and thereby ultimately best serve the world.