Many think of Hanukkah as a fight for religious freedom. While religious freedom was at stake, it was part of a broader battle on behalf of the concept of national identity. The Maccabees, local Judeans who spearheaded the revolt against the overpowering northern Syrian Greeks, and who inspired the grass-roots, did so for the overarching cause of retaining Judea’s identity and Jewish character, which was under assault by those trying to denude Judea of its distinctiveness.
The story begins in the waning years of the Greek empire, 150 years after the death of Alexander the Great. The eastern branch of the Greek empire was headquartered in Antioch, Syria and under the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus. He expected all countries under his jurisdiction to surrender their national sovereignty and independence, and he wanted their citizens to begin seeing themselves as citizens of the world, the Hellenic world.
Instead of undertaking costly military campaigns to accomplish this, Antiochus, circa 175 BC, reasoned it would be easier, and less conspicuous, to bring Judea under heel by simply de-Judaizing it, by forbidding Israel’s core and distinctive religious practices and educating its children in the mores of the hedonistic gymnasium. It worked.
In the beginning, many Judeans were lulled into feeling that the multicultural push would not endanger their own culture and distinctiveness and were actually open to the benefits of global Hellenism. Soon, however, the Seleucids moved beyond multiculturalism to demonizing the Judean and Jewish way of life as anachronistic and an impediment to Hellenistic fraternity and progress. Religious observance and religious teachers were outlawed.
Antiochus went so far as to desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem (known as the Beit Ha’mikdash) by installing on its holy platforms and altars images of Zeus. Since the Temple was the religious and civic symbol of Jewish nationhood, the goal was to sweep away Judea’s sense of nationalism and replace it with trans-nationalism, a loyalty and conformity to global Hellenism.
Moreover, it was a brazen “transformative” act, one specifically aimed at redefining and changing the concept of holiness so important and central to the residents and ancestors bequeathed the land between the Mediterranean and Jordan. The Syrian-Greek social engineers understood that when you redefine the historic morals and animating principles of a people and country, the nation has been conquered.
The Maccabee family, headed by Mattityahu (Matthew) and his five sons, rose up and said: No More. Through guerrilla tactics, they defeated the Syrian soldiers stationed within the borders. They began as a small group who immediately attracted hundreds of other patriots. After many skirmishes, they finally reached the Temple in Jerusalem, captured it, cleaned and purified it, and relit the Menorah whose oil lasted more than its one-day’s supply, but miraculously burned for eight days.
Some of the Maccabees perished in battle. But in the end, the Maccabees achieved a military conquest on the ground, a spiritual victory in the Temple, and an ideological affirmation in the hearts and souls of their countrymen. A dedicated few, like during our Revolutionary War, can pull off such miracles.
Why, however, did it take a small band of Minutemen to rise up against the invaders? Where were Judea’s rulers, its powerful elites? Why was the rebellion left to the grass-roots? It is because the elites had already been co-opted and had succumbed to the power and glamour of the Seleucids. They had forsaken their own countrymen, had bought into fashionable trans-nationalism, and were amply rewarded, elevated, and honored by the Syrian-Greek rulers. They were on the side of Seleucid and wanted a neutered and uber-cosmopolitan polity.
Worse, a large segment of the priestly caste, the clergy, who worked in the Jerusalem Temple sided with the transnationalists, and reports indicate, it was they who made possible Antiochus’ placement of Zeus in the Temple. Many even betrayed Mattityahu and his five sons. The Maccabees and their partisans battled not only an enemy from without, but enemies from within, including civil servants and old-line families.
Rabbi Spero is president of Caucus for America, spokesman for National Conference for Jewish Affairs, and author of Push Back: Reclaiming our American Judeo-Christian Spirit.