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Chanukah Feature (2): Behind the Fable of Miracle Oil Lies a Struggle for Jewish Unity

On Oct. 16, in the year 164 B.C.E., the victorious Maccabees rededicated the purified Jerusalem Temple, thus launching the checkered history of Chanukah, the Feast of Dedication.

Ironically, three or four years earlier, the widespread Jewish unrest seemed to be an ineffective rebellion going nowhere. And in less than four years, the trimphant reversal of 164 itself seemed to have petered out into a failed revolution. Judah was dead and the Hasmoneans were retreating into crushed passivity.

Seventeen years later, the Maccabees were back in the saddle, ruling a virtually independent Judea. Judah’s brother, Simon, was in full command as prince and high priest. Sixty years later, the expanded Hasmonean empire was wracked by internal distress and civil war.

During the next century, a cascade of religious conflict, assimilating sovereigns and failed power politics set the Hasmonean line on its final downswing. The situation culminated in a Roman takeover. A futile Jewish uprising led to a crushing destruction of Temple and Kingdom in the year 70 C.E.

The lessons of the up-and-down career of Chanukah and the Maccabees are worth pondering.

The uprising was begun by traditional Jews who rebelled against the growing Hellenization of Judea, both voluntary and imposed.

But the revolt was going nowhere because the Chasidim of those days were reluctant to fight or engage in political action. They were also culturally separated from the majority of Jews who were Hellenizing, more or less.

The Maccabees changed the balance of power by their willingness to resort to armed revolt. The Maccabees’ acculturation of elements of Hellenistic culture (without assimilating) enabled them both to rule and to reach out and engage other Jews who were drawn into the orbit of Hellenism.

The Maccabee coalition — Hasmoneans in alliance with some activist Chasidim, some acculturating Jews and some reclaimed Hellenizers — won the battle for supremacy in Judea.

Nevertheless, the coalition could not close the religious gap between the Maccabees and the Chasidim. The Chasidim “went home” after the rededication of the Temple, satisfied to live their religion and fearful of the corruption in exercising political rule.

This separation weakened Judah and his associates. The Greeks and their Hellenizing Jewish allies looked for support among the divided Jews. In 160 B.C.E., the shrunken Maccabee forces were crushed by a resurgent Greek army and Judah was killed.

Over the course of the next decades, the Maccabees came back. In their victories, they had the advantage of rallying Jews against military invasion and on behalf of self-rule and lower taxation.

But this limited coalition could not cure the religious split of the Jewish people. The Hasmonean dynasty was weakened by religious isolationism and critique from the right, and by assimilation to Hellenism and the loss of values that plagued its own ranks.

The inability to raise Hasmonean royal families fortified by Jewish faith and practices sufficient to resist the corruptions of international politics and the temptations of Hellenism continuously weakened the later generations. Religion was sometimes used to justify the family’s factional fighting over power and place. Polarization prevented effective employment of Torah to check the lusting after Greek — then Roman — assimilation. The eventual outcome was civil war and a Roman takeover.

Only in dependency and exile, did a renewed Jewish religion win the internal battle. But the cost was high — no independent government for 1,900 years. No wonder the rabbis felt so ambivalent about the Hasmonean dynasty. They never incorporated the accounts of Chanukah into the canon of the Bible. They interpreted the holiday itself more as a miracle story of oil discovered than as a celebration of a political-military triumph and cultural renewal.

Only in modern times did Chanukah enter its greatest period of importance.

American liberal Jews proclaim it as the festival of religious freedom and the Jewish answer to Christmas. Orthodox Jews hold it up as the story of resolutely faithful religious Jews resisting the blandishments of any outside culture. Zionists in the State of Israel lionize it as the great military-political fight for independence that provided the justification and the last living model for the recreated Jewish state.

All these accounts simplify Chanukah and evade its deeper challenge: Can the Jewish people come together in religious understanding and rule in accordance with Jewish values? Or is the people condemned to a unity viable only in foxholes and war — a unity that breaks down into cultural warfare and empties sovereignty of its content and coherence once external threat is removed?

Again, in our time, a coalition of traditional and modernizing Jews — both religious and secular Zionists — has built a Jewish state backed by assimilating Jews who knew enough to stand by Israel and the Jewish people in the face of destruction, war and external threats.

Again, the inner divisions are rampant. The danger grows that the Jewish people will split into fervently Orthodox and Chasidic types who are not invested in sovereignty except as it can be used for security and benefits; into religious Jews so full of passion and vision that they resist moderation in diplomacy; into secular Jews so alienated from tradition that they underestimate the threats — some even dream of assimilation and emptying the state and the people of Jewish content.

The threat grows of a ruinous polarization between militant political extremism advocating suppression of Arabs and assimilating universalism that would turn Israel into a Middle Eastern colony of the West.

The Jewish people needs new Maccabees — a movement of Jews who would assimilate insights and blessings from the West but absorb them within a Jewish cultural system.

Jews are needed to take the tradition into politics and social action but humanize and universalize its best values out of encounter with modernity and with the Other.

Jews need a rededicated saving minority that will self-critique its own positions.

Only a new coalition can break down the barriers of estrangement, ignorance and differing social realities that divide religious and secular Jews worldwide. When the oil of Jewish unity and mutual respect seems to be close to burning out, it is time for a miracle of rediscovery of the tradition, of the contemporary, of each other.

Chanukah must become multidimensional — a celebration of the new coalition of the Jewish people. The alternative is dissipation of Jewish sovereignty and increased assimilation and loss of Jews everywhere. God forbid that in our lifetime, we relive Santayana’s dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

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