Hanukkah as Jewish civil war.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 14 2009 7:07 AM

The Maccabees and the Hellenists

Hanukkah as Jewish civil war.

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That's the clash of Hanukkah. Armed Hasmonean priests and their comrades from the rural town ofModi'in attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek reform, like the gymnasium and new rules for governing commerce. The Hasmoneans imposed, at sword's edge, traditional observance. After years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule.

So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew. The rabbis drummed out this history with a fairy tale about a light that did not go out. But really, who can blame them—after all, what nation creates a living monument to a civil war?

And in a sense, the rabbis weren't entirely wrong. TheJews at once succumbed to Greek civilization, forcefully resisted it, and were transformed by it. Key words of Jewish self-understanding are still carried by Greek in the collective memory: synagogue, diaspora, Sanhedrin (the Rabbinic high court), and the very term Judaism. Yet the Jews somehow became Greek without ceasing to be Jews, even as light—the holiday's metaphor—somehow becomes matter without ceasing to be energy.

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Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.

But the question remains. Was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity? The Hasmonean state, originally a bulwark against Greek dominance, eventually declined into a petty Hellenist tyranny barely distinguishable from other military-political entities in the Middle East at the time. Memory of the Maccabean era of war and autonomy inspired the Jewish zealots of 67 to 73 C.E. who led the costly losing struggle against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Maccabean memory also fueled the messianic hopes of Rabbi Akiva and his followers, who backed the quixotic revolt of the warrior Shimon Bar Kochba, which Rome bloodily smashed in 135.

Today, the Maccabean memory has been resurrected in the modern state of Israel in the image of Jew as warrior, and Hanukkah is celebrated by many as a military holiday, the vestige of an ancient Independence Day. But I propose that on Hanukkah, we ought to consider whether an ethnic group that wishes to survive must turn itself into a nation-state. In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba debacle, at Hanukkah the words of the prophet Zachariah were read in the synagogue: "Not by power nor by might but through My spirit, says the Lord." In the glow of the candles this year we should wonder aloud whether the prophet's vision is but balm for losers or whether the international system may yet generate a new way for groups to be both part of the world and apart from it. Here is the hard question that an adult celebration of Hanukkah can bring into deliberate focus.

Rabbi James Ponet is Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.