You didn’t mess with the Maccabees. And the Maccabees didn’t mess around.
Yehudah the Hammer and his bros – Yonatan, Shimon, et al. – were fierce, brave, zealous, and uncompromising.
You had to be, to accomplish what they did. Leading a rag-tag band of rebels living in the wilderness. Sustaining a guerilla war for three years. Prevailing against a much larger army, backed by an empire.
They were the Jedi Knights of their day.
But where did that fierce single-mindedness come from?
Well, look no further than their dad. Matityahu was one hardnosed Hasmonean.
An old country priest (of the ancient Hebrew kind) from Modi’in, Matityahu didn’t like what he saw when he visited the big city Temple of Jerusalem.
The Syrian-Greek Seleucid Empire, under its ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (known better to generations of future Jewish schoolchildren as “Antiochus, nothing but a tuchus”), was cracking down on some of the Jewish population of Judea, a distant corner of a kingdom that stretched from modern-day Turkey to Persia.
Judea was a recent acquisition of the Seleucids, conquered only a few decades before the rise of the Maccabees. But for several centuries, the previous rulers of Judea, first Alexander the Great, then the Egyptian Ptolemaics, had tried, with some degree of success, to “Hellenize” the Jewish population of the region – to assimilate them into Greek culture.
Under Antiochus Nothingbutatuchus, the process went into overdrive. Jewish religious practices were banned, Orthodox Jews were persecuted, and of course the Temple in Jerusalem was pillaged and filled with altars to Greek gods.
But some modern historians paint a shade a grey into the story of Antiochus. They say he made a common mistake, repeated over and over again by hubris-filled rulers through to modern times: He inserted his military forces into a localized civil war, creating a larger battle that he could not control.
There was no precedent in the far-ranging Seleucid empire for treating minorities as poorly as Antiochus treated religious Jews. But the Jews of Judea were a divided population at the time. Wealthier big city Jerusalemites embraced assimilation and accepted Hellenization to an extent that would have outraged their poorer, more traditionalist country cousins. Like Matityahu of Modi’in.
Hellenized Jews built Greek-style gymnasiums, participated in Greek cultural events, and some men even tried to get their circumcisions surgically reversed.
The Maccabee revolt began not with an attack on the forces of Antiochus, but with Matityahu’s slaying of a fellow Jew for participating in a Greek sacrificial ritual. And Matityahu at first, then Yehuda, led a guerilla war against not only Seleucid authorities, but also against the assimilated urban Jewish population.
The revolt succeeded, of course. The Seleucids were driven out of Jerusalem, Jewish religious practices were restored, and Yehuda’s brothers ultimately founded the Hasmonean Kingdom, the first sovereign Jewish country in the region in more than four centuries.
More than two thousand years later, the miraculous victory is still commemorated to this day every year at Hanukkah.
So what, exactly, does Hanukkah commemorate? The struggle for religious freedom? Sure. The survival of the Jewish people in the face of persecution and adversity? Of course, but that’s the theme of almost every Jewish holiday: They tried to destroy us, they failed, let’s eat.
But the story of Hanukkah also seems to be about an unresolved – and maybe irresolvable – tension in the Jewish world: The tension between living and assimilating as modern people in the wider community and maintaining the traditions and practices that some feel are central to Jewish continuity.
It’s a tension that still plays out in issues ranging from the anxiety in North America over intermarriage to the battles in Israel between Orthodox and more liberal Jews over women’s rights and access to holy sites.
If the Maccabees hadn’t rebelled and the Hellenization of the Jews had continued, would that have been the end of Jewish life in Judea? Hard to know. History, of course, marches on.
Within a century of the Maccabees’ victory, both the Seleucid Empire and the Hasmonean Kingdom were history themselves, both of them conquered by the Romans.
Maybe because of this, it took many years for Hanukkah to become as prominent and popular as it is nowadays. With no restrictions on work or diet, it was not traditionally considered a major religious holiday.
Ironically, for a festival that commemorates the triumph of religious commitment over assimilation, Hanukkah probably became especially popular in recent decades among North American Jews due to a calendar-related coincidence:
It’s an antidote to Christmas envy.