The Jewish Holiday the Rabbis Hated

December 22nd, 2011 at 10:03 am David Frum | 8 Comments |

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In my column for The Week, I discuss the real meaning of Hanukkah:

Eight days of festivities because ancient Jews discovered a cruse of unusually long-lasting oil? That’s supposed to rank as a miracle? Why not take a long weekend in August because the prophet Isaiah saved 15 percent on his car insurance?

Still, of all the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah may be the one with the most contemporary resonance. It tells a story of conflict over assimilation — of the struggle for Jewish national independence — and of the challenges faced by a Jewish state surrounded by enemies and supported by the world’s greatest military power. But to rediscover that highly relevant message, you have to scrape away a lot of potato-flavored schmaltz. Christmas is a holiday whose meaning has been superimposed over the centuries, with Nordic ritual (Yule logs, Druidic evergreen trees) overlaid upon the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Hanukkah, by contrast, is a holiday whose meaning has been ripped away, as generations of rabbis sought to contain and suppress a story too upsetting and dangerous to fit conveniently into later Jewish tradition and practice.

More than a century before Christ, the little territory that is now Israel was subject to a powerful neighbor, an empire stretching from what is now Syria deep toward what is now Afghanistan. This empire was ruled by the descendants of one of the generals of Alexander the Great. In an effort to integrate their sprawling domain, these rulers demanded that the Jews practice some elements of Greek cults in their Temple worship.

These demands triggered internecine conflict among the Jews. Some thought it wise to obey. Some even thought the Jews had something to learn from their Greek-speaking neighbors. Others militantly rejected Greek customs and foreign rule. Disagreement led to assassination, repression, civil war, and ultimately outright rebellion. The rebels prevailed. The family that led the rebellion was nicknamed the Maccabees, and Hanukkah was the Independence Day of the kingdom they founded.

Click here to read the full column.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Pavonis

    It’s sort of surprising the Seleukids screwed up their religious policy so badly in Judea. Heck, they had to be tolerant by necessity since Greek polytheism was pretty much a minority religion in their polyglot empire. But I think the Seleukids fell into the same trap the Romans did later by assuming that Jews were like any other subject people who would be totally fine worshiping Dear Leader along with the other God(s). Oops.

    • Drosz

      Well, Seleucus I was one of Alexander’s greatest generals, but his sons? Kings acting like Seleucus IV, who tried to rob temples because he was so broke and married his sister to boot, didn’t really endear the Seluecid dynasty to the locals as much as you would think. And he was more stable than the rest of his bozo family. However, his end was the same as all the rest…betrayal and assasination. The Ptolemy dynasty seemed to be much more suited to rule.

      /benefits of a classical education :)

      • Pavonis

        Alexander’s successors could have been so much greater had they, instead of fighting amongst themselves, actually undertaken Alexander’s project of creating a “World Community”, combining Greek rationality with Eastern knowledge and merging all ethnic groups into one coherent nation. Heck, Hellenistic civilization ended up with lots of scientific ideas which didn’t get rediscovered until two millenia later as well as steam engine technology. But they were so busy fighting amongst themselves and keeping their people repressed (Ptolemaic Egypt outlawed private property) that they missed the chance and got destroyed by Rome and Parthia.

  • SerenityNow

    It’s more of an American holiday because it celebrates eight nights of burning oil that we don’t have.

  • Marquis

    True, if I understand correctly Chanukah isn’t a Torah holiday, but a rabbinical holiday. It’s important, but not the most important of holidays in Judaism. Sort of like how Thanksgiving and Independence Day are not on the same level as Christmas and Easter, even though many people would like to think so.

  • GregoryHJ

    Contrary to what most non-Jewish people think, Hanukkah is not really a very important holiday in Judaism. Passover and Yom Kippur are far more important. However, Hanukkah is of course a much more memorable story, and was always a favorite of mine when I was little.

    On a second note, it’s nice to see that at least a few FrumForum members have a pretty decent grounding in ancient history, which is a favorite of mine. The Seleucids were never interested in maintaining Alexander’s dream and ruling with the Persians as equals. They were very much Hellenistic supremacists who saw the native cultures as inferior to their own Greek one. The Ptolemies were much more tolerant in comparison. Of course, it’s interesting to note that the Maccabees won independence from an oppressive government only to install one of their own making. The Hasmonean Dynasty was by and large a failure and ended up being dominated by intrigue and corruption.

  • Alex

    hey frum…don’t be dissing fried potatoes.

  • Ray_Harwick

    Christians have a whole, other view and alternate spelling of Hanukkah.

    To me, it sounds like some kind of seasoning you’d put in a pot roast.