Chanukah has just ended. In honor of the holiday, a Buddhist cousin sent me a story from the Huffington Post titled “The Real History of Chanukah is More Complicated than you Probably Thought.”
It actually was.
In Sunday School, we were basically taught that Judah Maccabee led a successful revolt against Antiochus, whose Seleucid empire had taken over Judea and was forcing the Hellenization of the Jewish people. (I dimly remember something about pigs in the Temple…). The Maccabees won, and when they commenced clean-up of the Temple, discovered that there was only enough oil to light the holy menorahs for a day—but a miracle happened, and the oil lasted for eight days, just long enough to allow a runner to obtain more.
If my recollection is hazy (it is), my defense is that Chanukah (spelled however you like) was a very minor holiday until Christmas, celebrated around the same time of year, became so commercialized, and we Jews didn’t want our children to feel left out. The lesson of Chanukah was the importance of religious liberty, which was duly noted, and then we moved on….
According to the Huffington Post, real history was a bit more complicated. Initially, a number of the Jews embraced aspects of the Seleucids’ Hellenic culture.
“The initiative and impetus for this often came from the locals themselves,” said Shaye J.D. Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard and author of From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. “They were eager to join the general, global community.”…
The rising influence of hellenism was not immediately a source of open conflict within the Jewish community. In fact, hellenism permeated even the most traditional circles of Jewish society to one degree or another. A typical Judean would have worn Greek robes and been proficient in the Greek language whether he was urban or rural, rich or poor, a pious practitioner of the Mosaic faith or a dabbler in polytheism.
“Becoming more hellenized didn’t mean they were less Jewish as a result,” said Erich Gruen, an emeritus history professor at Berkeley and author of Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. “Most Jews didn’t see hellenism as the enemy or any way compromising their sense of themselves as Jews.”
The rebellion came only when Antiochus pushed the more pious Jews too far, engaging in a campaign of radical hellenization–prohibiting fundamental Jewish practices, and introducing foreign rites and practices in the Temple.
“They actually rebel only when the religious persecution reached a level they could no longer tolerate,” said Cohen, who also chairs Harvard’s department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “The line in the sand seems to have been the Torah and the [commandments], and the profaning of the ritual of the Temple.”
Cohen characterizes these Jews not as zealots, but as “realists.” Until then, they had embraced many hellenistic norms in their own lives and accommodated the spread of practices to which they objected — such as foreign worship — among their co-religionists.
There certainly is a lesson here, and it actually goes well beyond the importance of respecting religious differences/liberties in a diverse society. Ironically, it is a lesson taught by the early Greeks—the importance of moderation, of aiming for the “mean between extremes.”
These days, we might say “Don’t push your luck,” or “Pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered.”
When will working Americans decide that they are being pushed too far? When the Walmarts and their ilk continue to resist paying a fair wage? When their wholly-owned politicians work tirelessly to deny medical care to those who are struggling financially? When their lobbyists argue for cutting social programs in order to give the rich greater tax breaks? When the bankers who precipitated the Great Recession continue awarding each other obscene bonuses…???
How far is too far?