Chanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah: how’s that again?

Word menorah ETSY PHOTO
Word menorah ETSY PHOTO

Time to light the menorah for C/Han/nuk/ka – and do I add an “h”? There are several ways of spelling our holiday of national liberation. Maybe those variations are telling us something. I suggest we look deeper at what seems a simple, heroic story of national liberation.

The rabbis were wary of the Hasmonean dynasty. While it began with a victory over persecution from the Syrian Greeks, descendants of the original family turned their reign into typical oriental imperial rule, scooping up nearby provinces including Edom, from whose royal family came the blood-soaked Herod.

So the rabbinic frame of the holiday emphasized a miraculous lamp burning one day’s oil for eight days.

But there’s more to it. Judea was hardly unaware of the Hellenistic world, having been in its orbit since before the time of Alexander The Great (c. 323 BCE). Ruled first by the Egyptian Greeks, then the Seleucids based in Syria, ordinary Judeans saw Hellenistic cities all around them and heard spoken Greek, probably picking up enough to manage in daily life. It was not the Hellenistic world itself that began the crisis, but the increasingly assimilationist Jews that birthed opposition.

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There is even dissent over who threw the first punch. Was it after the ascent of Antiochus Epiphanes, but before his attempt to crush out the religious rituals of the Jews that opposition arose? Was there already armed opposition to Greek rule before the edicts? Hellenists among the Jews had bribed their way to the high priesthood, and as far as Antiochus was concerned, he had won the Judean part of his kingdom over to his ideals. Did this surprise opposition, then, give rise to his persecutions and the Maccabean revolt?

Or was it his fault? Did he begin the quarrel by summarily imposing draconian decrees against circumcision, the Temple sacrifices, Shabbat observance, etc. immediately after he ascended the throne?

In the end, the Maccabees met the enemy – and some of them were other Jews. The ruling elite had already taken on many aspects of the Hellenistic world. So why would such a fierce advocate of a unified Hellenistic kingdom as Antiochus not expect everyone to follow in their train?

Unfortunately for the Greeks, there was unrest at home, an enemy at the emperor’s back, and the traditional massed Greek army tactics were useless against the raid and run tactics of the Jews.

Still, it was touch and go. The Maccabees were leading a guerrilla army against Jewish Hellenizers as well as against Greek armies. The miracle was not just that they prevailed, but that they wrested back control of the country from some of its own people! As time went on, sadly, the Hasmonean dynasty fought brother against brother, fell out with the emerging rabbinic class, and eventually lost Judea to the Romans.

Yet Judaism itself was changed by its encounter with Greeks. For instance, note the thousands of Greek words in the Mishnah, and Greek names of the rabbis. Synagogues all over Judea/Palestine are decorated with pagan iconography, such as the zodiac, and even portray God Himself! Too, synagogues themselves were built on a Greco-Roman plan. Deeper than merely decorative art (which tells its own story) modes of rabbinic argument may have been borrowed from the Greek system of debate.

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In fact, the situation in Judea is much like ours today in the West. We speak the local language, not Hebrew; most of us dress like everyone else; we read the same books, listen to the same music, go to the same movies, and so on. Happily, we are free from oppressive government persecution.

I’m not raining on the parade – I love latkes and sufganiyot, too, and of course the simple tale works for the kinder. But adults should be responsive to the whole story. Give ourselves time, while the kids are opening their gifts, to probe deeper into the historical ambiguities. No matter how we spell them.