Why Does Anyone Celebrate Chanuka?

I once heard a kiruv rabbi speak about Chanuka where he mentioned that there’d been an article in the Israeli press where a chiloni (secular) kid asks his father, “If we lived at the time of the Maccabees, which side would we be on?”  It’s an excellent question, as many people don’t realize that the war that resulted in Chanuka was first and foremost a Jewish civil war.

Greek culture was hugely popular among Jews of the time.  Jason, a Hellenized Jew who bribed his way into being the High Priest, petitioned the Greeks to establish a gymnasium in Jerusalem – where sports were done in the nude.  His successor, Menelaus, was the one who convinced Antiochus to force the Jews of the land to sacrifice pigs to idols. When they reached Modi’in, the Maccabees revolted, and we know the rest of the story.

For their part, the Maccabees were not fighting for freedom of religion.  They were Jewish religious ideologues. They forcibly circumcised the children of Hellenist Jews.

I think the real miracle of Chanuka is that anyone celebrates this holiday at all.  For secularists, it’s a victory of religious zealotry. For charedim (ultra-Orthodox), the whole “leaving the yeshiva and fighting in an army” thing would seem to be an issue.

For us religious Zionists, it’s a mixed bag.  On the one hand, we recaptured the Temple and restarted the Temple Service – something we’re still waiting to do in our day and age, despite the much broader success of today’s State of Israel than the state the Maccabees created.

On the other hand, there were a lot of downsides.

  • The revolt did not happen to regain independence.  The Greeks had been here for over 100 years. Our ancestors had made their peace with being ruled.  Only the forced abandonment of Judaism (remember: prompted by other Jews) sparked rebellion
  • The war was far from over when Chanuka was established.  They were celebrating the partial liberation of Jerusalem.  A Greek garrison was still holed up on the Temple Mount with a cadre of Jewish supporters.
  • The Maccabees are criticized by the rabbis for taking over the rulership, in addition to the high priesthood.  This led to a series of events where John Hyrcanus, the high priest, (Yochanan Kohen Gadol), a grandson of the Maccabees becomes a Sadducee – essentially a Hellenized Jew; the epitome of what the Maccabees started fighting in the first place.

The truth is, we don’t all celebrate the same Chanuka. The non-Zionist Orthodox celebrate the miracle of the oil.  Being able to practice Judaism was, and is, good enough until the utopian future, and the war did accomplish the end of forced Hellenization.  Secularists, I believe, also celebrate the end of forced Hellenization. After all, Greek religious beliefs are no better than Jewish religious beliefs, and the war left a stalemate, where neither Hellenized Jews, nor Torah observant Jews were able to wipe out the other.  And we religious Zionists say Hallel, connecting it to Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and realizing that neither “בימים ההם” (in those days), nor “בזמן הזה” (at our time) did we wind up with an ideal victory.

The real draw to Chanuka, is not the historical event, or even our current situation.  The holiday reminds us that there can be a utopian future, because we see that things can improve.  Although not a total victory, both Chanuka and the modern State of Israel made the Jewish situation better; and if things can get better, then there’s a chance to make them much better.

Chanuka has always been associated with light.  The benefit of light is not so much to show you what’s in your hand – touch can suffice for that.  Light shows you what’s ahead of you.

About the Author
Reuven (sometimes Bobby) came from a mixed Jewish-Christian background. He became ba'al teshuva (Jewishly observant) in his 20s with the intention of making aliyah, which didn't happen until his 40s. His daughter, Shani, also blogs and serves in the IDF as a medic. She was a lone soldier until her parents made aliyah in 2017.