The story of Hanukkah is the story of religious freedom. In 168 BC King Antiochus (pronounced an TIE uh kus) the 4th, who inherited his kingdom from Alexander the Great, set up an idol in the Jewish temple and ordered Jews to worship it. He was a zealous Hellenist and wanted all people to follow Greek ways. A revolt led by Mattathias and his son Judah the Maccabee to overthrow Antiochus raged with the odds against the Jews; they were ill-equipped and vastly outnumbered [think the Saints or David & Goliath or Rocky). But the Jews were fighting for their homes, their faith and their freedom as the Syrian mercenaries were not. So, in the winter of 165 BC the Jews were victorious and marched into Jerusalem.
The first act was to clean the temple and get rid of the idol. When they arrived, there was only a single flask of oil to light that should have lasted one day. It miraculously lasted eight.
Later, to commemorate the victory, candles were lit for eight days. There was an interesting dispute between the followers of Shammai and Hillel (Hillel and Shammai were two leading rabbis of the early 1st century BCE who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought, known as the House of Hillel and House of Shammai). Shammai advocated lighting the eight candles moving downward to a single candle. Historians believe Shammai’s basic view was that the glory of Israel lay in the past and there had been a steady downward trend among the Jews. Hillel’s followers foresaw a glorious future for Judaism. Symbolic of their faith and hope, they advocated a rising crescendo of light. Of course, they prevailed. Today the candles are lit from left to right.
The basic issue of the Maccabean struggle was religious freedom. The Jews fought for their right to worship God in their own way. Not long after the victory, war broke out again, this time Judah was killed in battle and the new colossus, Rome, bestrode the Middle East. The Hebrew state [Israel] was crushed until May 1948. It is interesting to speculate on what this victory of the spirit has meant in human history. If Judaism had been destroyed in the second century before Jesus, would Christianity have come into the world, or Mohammedanism? Both were products of Judaism and both derived sustenance from the living Jewish people.*
My nighttime reading has been Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg, a fascinating treatise on how entrenched hating Jews is in the Western Hemisphere. In a review in the Washington Post, Michael S. Roth writes:
The idea of Judaism — together with the fact that there were still people in the world who chose to remain Jews — was an affront to that universalism. “To the extent that Jews refused to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture, they could become emblematic of the particular, of stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, enemies of the spirit, and of God.
Throughout the centuries theologians returned to this theme when they wanted either to stimulate religious enthusiasm or quash some perceived heretical movement. Not that you needed any real Jews around to do this. You simply had to label your enemies as “Jews” or “Judaizing” to advance the purity of your cause. In the first through fourth centuries, Christians fighting Christians often labeled each other Jews as they struggled for supremacy. And proclaiming your hatred of the Jews became a tried and true way of showing how truly Christian you were. Centuries later, even Luther and Erasmus agreed that “if hatred of Jews makes the Christian, then we are all plenty Christian.”
Islam followed this same pattern of solidifying orthodoxy by stoking anti-Jewish fervor. Muhammad set Islam, like Christianity, firmly within an Abrahamic tradition, but that made it crucial to sever the new religion from any Judaizing possibilities. Rival Islamic groups, like rival forms of Christianity, often painted their adversaries as hypocritical Jews scheming to take the world away from spiritual truths essential for its true salvation.
As I study and learn more about how racism is encoded into American DNA, it has been interesting to parallel this journey by understanding how hating Jews is encoded into the West’s moral DNA.
The miracle of Hanukkah is not that one pot of oil burned for the Maccabee and their small army, the miracle was that these Jews lit the one pot the next night, and the next, and the next for seven more nights. It’s this leap of faith that warms my heart against the dangers of cynicism and apathy. Happy Hanukkah to all y’all and to all a good night.