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Articles > Maccabees, Greeks, Hanukkah and Christmas

Each year at Hanukkah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the military conquest and political tyranny of Antiochus and the Syrian empire he ruled.

As children, we are told of the so-called “miracle” of the cruse of oil – how, when the Jews retook the Temple complex in Jerusalem, ousting the garrisoned Syrian troops, they set about to cleanse the sanctuary and rid it of the idols, pigs intended for sacrificial purposes, and other vestiges of pagan ritual which the Syrian troops had installed, and rededicated the Temple to the worship of the Almighty. (Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew).

The Jews had need of kosher (i.e. ritually suitable) oil in sealed flasks to kindle the menorah, but found – so the legend goes – enough oil on the Temple premises to last for one day only. Yet, miraculously, the Talmud relates, the oil lasted for eight days, sufficient time to obtain additional oil from elsewhere.

Greek spear thrower, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Greek spear thrower, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The tale of the oil comes to us only many generations after the events of 168-165 B.C.E., the invention of rabbis who, living under Roman occupation several centuries later, were fearful that hot-headed Jews in their own day might draw inspiration from the maccabees and rise up against the iron hand of Rome, staging an ill-advised revolt that would bring the wrath of Rome crushing down on them. Additionally, these rabbis took into consideration how their own predecessors and mentors had been ill-treated by the descendants of the Maccabees who ruled Judea. So they elected to downplay the military side of the Maccabean struggle and emphasize the story’s spiritual importance, as embodied in the menorah and the cruse of oil.

The real miracle to be celebrated, however, might very well be in the continuous survival of the Jewish people, outlasting the civilizations of Greece, Rome and many others. Like the menorah burning in the Temple, the flame of Jewish life has remained unextinguished. Believing in their cause, the weak prevailed against the strong, the few against the many.

In later days, this same spirit would inspire the Jewish freedom fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and Israelis fighting multiple enemy armies to secure and maintain a state of their own. Less dramatic but perhaps no less important is the flame of Jewish commitment that has been kept alive by every ordinary Jew, and passed down from generation to generation for nearly 4,000 years.

Hanukkah reminds us of the ultimate importance of valuing your own culture, your own heritage and beliefs, even when – especially when – you are in the minority. The Syrians encouraged all the peoples in their vast empire to adopt Greek ways alongside their own indigenous practices. The Jews alone stood up for the right to be different, holding exclusively to their ancestral ways, even when that made life difficult. In our own day, when Christmas is everywhere around us, we can rekindle our own secure sense of identity and pride in our heritage when we kindle our own Hanukkah menorahs for each of the 8 nights.

A Struggle of Ideas

Much of what Hanukkah recalls is the struggle, not only between armies or political ideas, but between two very different cultural points of view. Antiochus sought to impose Greek culture upon the people of Judea for a simple reason: he believed that if all the peoples of his realm adopted the Greek practices which Syria (the northern heir to Alexander’s empire) maintained, it would unite the home front against the Egyptian army to the south, as well as the emerging threat of Rome to the west. All other nations accepted the Greek customs, ritual practices and festivals without objection. Only the Jews resisted, and as the resistance grew, the Syrians cracked down, making the practice of Jewish rituals, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance and the study of Torah, punishable by death.

A small minority of Jews, known as Hellenizers, actively embraced Greek culture, including participation in such sporting activities as wrestling, discus throwing, and gymnastics in the town gymnasium, a central institution in any Greek polis. Some even went so far as to undergo a painful operation to reverse the evidence of circumcision so that they might better emulate their Greek neighbors when taking part in athletic activity, customarily held in the nude.

The fundamental role that sport played in Greek culture is described by sport sociologist D.S. Eitzen in Sport and Contemporary Society (1984):

The ancient Greeks worshipped beauty and entwined religious observance with the athletic demonstrations in such a way that it is difficult to define where one left off and the other began. Greek gods were anthropomorphic, and sculptors portrayed the gods as perfect human specimens, to be both admired and emulated by their worshippers. The strong anthropomorphic conceptions of gods held by the Greeks led to their belief that gods took pleasure in the same things as mortals – music, drama, and displays of physical excellence.

The gymnasia, located in every city-state for all male adults, [had both] a place for sports training….and facilities for religious worship; and altar and a chapel were located in the center of each gymnasium. In the athletic festivals and Olympic games the victorious athletes presented their gift of thanks upon the altar of the god whom they thought to be responsible for their victory.

The inherent difference in the world view between the monotheism of the Jews and the pagan society of their neighbors, even the culturally sophisticated Greeks, led to vastly different sets of values in both real-world and theological terms. The Greeks, for example, held that a non-swimmer resembled an illiterate person. Rabbi Akiba’s mention of swimming instruction as one of the three basic duties of a father toward his son (in the Mechilta) was considered not for its cultural merit, but as a basic (self-defense) survival skill for those under foreign occupation.

Theologically, the Greeks believed that their gods behaved in a capricious manner toward humans. Relations among gods were based on whimsy and so, too, relations in human society. Their polytheism prevented them from believing in a unifying order in the world – so life was thought of like an existential merry-go-round that kept going around and around without heading anywhere in particular. As the noted Israeli scholar/diplomat Abba Eban pointed out in Hertage: Civilization and the Jews, the Jews “could not abide the cupidity of the Greek gods,” while the Greeks ridiculed the Jews’ worship of an invisible God. At that time, Jews were unique in their belief in a single God who brought order to the cosmos - (petty jealousies among so many gods in pagan belief meant that one god could be in charge today, and a different god tomorrow – not so in the case of monotheism.) - and thus direction and purpose to human behavior. The direction was aimed at the future; the purpose was to build a human society which mirrored God’s law.

In their athletic pursuits and in other ways, the Greeks strove for the perfection they saw in their gods; the Jews sought the justice which their God championed and required. The Greeks asked their gods to grace them with success, the Jews asked for moral courage. The Greeks pictured their gods as taking pleasure in the same things as mortals, while in the Jewish view it was man who seeks to emulate God and not vice versa: if God raises up the fallen, feeds the hungry, and cares for the weak, then we are commanded to do the same.

In fact, it is the Jewish belief in the sacred call of man, in partnership with God, to make the world a better place, more just and harmonious in the future than it is at present, that gave the world the idea of the messianic call that the Christian faith later adopted and champions in its own way at this very time of year.

The conflict between the Greek and Jewish cultures came to a head between those who sought to preserve a distinctly Jewish way of life and those who opted for assimilation to the surrounding values and standards. Ultimately, Hanukkah noted as much a battle of the heart and the mind as of the battlefield itself.

Post Script

One might note with some irony that in time, many of the Greek ideas found their way into mainstream Jewish culture, such as the concept of democracy which served as the basis for the institution of the synagogue (itself a Greek word meaning “house of the people”) which came to supplant the Temple, and also the practice of intellectual discourse at meals which is at the heart of the Passover seder observance. The descendants of the Maccabees, known as the Hasmoneans, treated their own people with such cruelty (shades of George Orwell’s Animal Farm) that, as mentioned above, they were written out of the Hanukkah saga as retold in the Talmud.

There is yet another irony, that the Maccabees would be the inspiration 2,000 years later for a Jewish sports movement, insofar as the Maccabean revolt was sparked in part by the establishment of a gymnasium in Jerusalem by the High Priest Jason (who had Hellenized his name from the Hebrew Joshua), which served as a focal point of Greek culture in the heart of the Jewish capital. It was there that Hellenizing Jews, including some of the younger priests, partook in nude athletic contests and the pagan rituals which were part and parcel of the Greek sport experience. This incensed the Jews who had resisted the ways of their idol-worshipping neighbors for over 1,000 years. Among the outraged was the priest Mattathias, who took Judah and his other sons away from Jerusalem to his native Modi’in where they could escape the rule of Greek culture and live as Jews. When the Maccabees re-captured Jerusalem, one of the first offers of business was the dismantling of the gymnasium. There is a further irony, says Tel Aviv University historian Ya’akov Shavit: the relay race, an intrinsic part of part of the Greek pagan games, morphed into the torch run from Modi’in, the signature opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games.

So why the association between the Maccabees and Jewish sports involvement? Shavit holds that there were no other role models available, and it was the heroic quality of the Maccabean struggle that spoke to those who adopted the name for their contemporary purposes. The modern Jewish sports movement, and the Maccabi organization that emerged, served to instill a sense of national pride and mission through sport, playing in important role in contending with the dual threats of anti-Semitism and assimilation.

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