Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, is often celebrated as a military victory. The Seleucid Greeks, ancestors of Alexander the Great, oppressed the Jews and did not permit them to practice their religion. Zeus was erected as a statue in the Holy Temple, and a swine was slaughtered there. The practice and teaching of Judaism was forbidden. The Maccabees rose up and won many battles against the most powerful nation in the world.
The story of Hanukkah is told in Maccabees 1 and 2. While those books are part of the Christian cannon, they are not part of the Jewish Bible. The story of Hanukkah is told by the scroll of the Hasmoneans.
The Talmud made sure that Hanukkah was understood as a rededication of religious values which were on the verge of being crushed by the tentacles of the Greek Empire. Hellenization meant a homogeneity of cultures based upon the Greek ideal of beauty, philosophical discourse and fate. Judaism was wholly opposed to the Greek ideal, rather stressing the unity of one G-d, the power of free choice, and the primacy of mitzvoth. The clash of cultures between the Hellenistic and the Jewish could not have been any greater.
We are replaying the Hanukkah story today. Among Jews and non-Jews, there is great attraction to a culture devoid of purpose, divinity and unity. Rather, we seem to lust after vacuous ideals unsupported by the moorings of morality and predicated upon immediate ego gratification. This is not the Jewish way, but it did find its beginnings in Greek, and later Roman, thought.
During Greek times, there were many Jews who themselves assimilated into the seductive and seemingly marvelous Greek culture. Those who clung to the Jewish faith and fought against the death of Jewish ideals were often mischaracterized as zealots or otherwise out of touch with “modern” trends.
Hanukkah became, with the passage of millennia, celebrated in a very low-key way. In Christian culture, Christmas was a tsunami overtaking any memory of the fundamental purpose of Hanukkah.
In the early 1950s, a Chassidic Rabbi named Menachem Mendel Schneerson reignited the fire represented by the Hanukkah candles. He preached the importance of public celebrations of Hanukkah and sought to instill within the Jewish people a sense of pride in their traditional values. Affectionately known as “the Rebbe,” Rabbi Schneerson unapologetically supported the public lighting of menorahs. He stressed the importance of the Jewish people placing menorahs in their windows, on their property, and even in public places. Suddenly, menorahs sprang up next to Christmas trees. Establishment Judaism found this trend objectionable and even embarrassing. Not so the Rebbe. He believed that Hanukkah, like every other event on the calendar, was meant for joy, peace and spiritual fulfillment. Even birthdays, which many Orthodox Jews never paid attention to because they were not Jewish holidays, were suggested as significant events by the Rebbe. Thanks to the Rebbe’s influence, there are cars driving around in many places with menorahs on their roofs, looking vaguely like antlers in hunting season.
In the cultural cauldron roiling within the United States, there is a new significance to Hanukkah.
In addition to the cultural triumph of Hanukkah over its secular alternative, there is the current appreciation that Jews since antiquity have always under attack merely because of their faith. Hanukkah should remind us that through an odd combination of anti-Semitism and ignorance, left and right are now united in their unholy alliance against Jewish people.
Right wing nationalists paint George Soros as a demonic figure. He is the conspiratorial Jew depicted by the famous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These Jews, goes the narrative, desire nothing more than to control the world. Meanwhile, George Soros himself not only fails to advance the interests of the Jewish people, but in fact uses his money to attack the rededicated, reborn Israel in a way that is both vicious and a blatant encouragement of anti-Semitism. How fascinating that the same man is pictured as the Jewish devil, while he spends his time and resources undermining the very existence of the Jewish State. The coalescence between the left and the right is not new. Let us remember that it was Yosef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, may their names both be erased, who signed a non-aggression pact only to have Hitler renege and attack the Soviet Union.
Jews today, and Israel as a stand-in for the eternal Jew, faces the threat of annihilation daily. Russia occupies Syria and controls Iran like a puppeteer. These evil forces find much comfort in the American and English left, which daily lies about Israel, preying upon fraudulent intelligentsia in the Western world. The preoccupation by the left with the remarkably democratic Israel is without logic. Those on the left and right have no concern for the dead and dying in Africa, Ukraine, Yemen, Tibet, and the list goes on continuously. Instead, they spend an enormous amount of time, energy and resources attacking the Jewish people in Israel.
The message of Hanukkah is that all good and moral people in the world should rededicate themselves to those principles that make for a civilized and tolerant world. Hanukkah’s relationship to Christmas, just around the corner, is rebirth and rededication.
In my visit to Bethlehem, I was impressed by the modesty and simplicity of the place where Jesus was born. A simple Jew, a country preacher, Jesus was born into a Jewish culture where Hanukkah was already well established. He would have interacted with the Rabbis who codified in the Talmud those very virtues upon which Christianity is based.
To all friends and honorable people of every faith, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and all the best that the winter holiday seasons bring to families and friendships alike.