Everything they ever told you about Chanukah was a lie

by | Dec 22, 2014 | Torah Thought

You remember the old story, right? The evil Syrian Greeks sought to destroy Judaism by outlawing the practice of the mitzvot. The valiant Maccabeean freedom fighters fought back and won a great victory, recapturing Jerusalem and rededicating the holy temple. Miraculously a single jar of oil burned for eight days, confirming God’s hand in saving the Jewish people.

The true story of Chanukah is very different. In every part of their empire, the Syrian Greeks promoted religious freedom alongside Helenistic culture, because happy productive subjects generate good tax revenue. What went wrong then in Judah? We’re missing an important part of the story: this was a Jewish civil war.

The Syrian Greeks promoted a universal culture that included education, philosophy and physical health. In each of their provinces, this universal culture melded with the local religious culture to produce a hybrid. This is precisely what happened in Judah. Many Jews wanted to integrate the best of secular culture with their ancient religious heritage. The civil war began when zealous Jews, who opposed any compromise with Greek culture, began a violent campaign to kill or intimidate those who suggested compromise. The Jews who favored compromise called the authorities to their aid, and thus this unusual conflict began, as the Syrian Greek forces cracked down on zealots and eventually upon traditional Jewish practices too. When we truly understand the Chanukah conflict, many of us come to a startling realization: had we lived in that era, we would probably have fought against the Maccabees, not for them.

There are two detailed historical sources that describe the Maccabean revolt. Each was written within a few decades after the war, one from the Maccabees themselves and one that was written from the diaspora. What is especially strange is that neither source mentions the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. That story is first told in the Talmud more than six centuries later. After zealotry had brought about two catastrophic defeats at the hands of Rome, the early rabbis must have felt that a change of emphasis was required.

Why then the festival of lights? Is it really a coincidence that Chanukah falls in mid-December when there are so many other festivals of light—Yule, Diwali and Chawmos to name but a few—that congregate around the time of the winter solstice? I believe that the desire to light up the dark is a holy human impulse—one that transcends religious and cultural boundaries.

The Talmud tells the story that Adam, the first human being, saw the days growing shorter, and was terribly afraid. He worried that his sin had resulted in the destruction of the world. After eight days of fasting and prayer, the winter solstice arrived and the days began to lengthen. In the years that followed he celebrated the eight days prior and after the solstice as a festival.

Underneath this story about Adam lies a profound human fear: darkness. The Talmud sees this story as the origin of non-Jewish solstice festivals, but the connections to Chanukah cannot be ignored. This story of Chanukah is a human story that remembers the long dark nights of winter huddled together against the cold and the light of fire that kindles our hearts.

So, if our Chanukah isn’t about freedom fighters and oil, what are we celebrating? Perhaps religious pluralism and recognition that we draw our values from the culture around us and from the deep-seated needs that characterize all human beings.

Chanukah sameach!

—Rabbi Marc A. Kraus, Temple Emanuel