A Lesson from the Chanukah Story

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?

Happy Chanukah…..


  1. I told this story before but it needs to be repeated now. I babysat with two Jewish children; Jay was 7, Cathy 5. Jay and I held many conversations as he was a very mature 7 year old. They had a beautiful Christmas tree in their living room; when I asked about it, he said it was for their Christian friends when they came to celebrate the holidays…plural you notice. A sharing in the true meaning of friendship. I don’t know where the saying, “Out of the mouths of babes…” originated but it fits here.

    The glaring, over-abundance of Christmas decorations and sales (often beginning before Halloween) has nothing to do with the birth of Christ which we are supposed to be celebrating. It is the biggest money-making season of the year, no matter the religion of those business owners. Jews have kept the celebration of Chanukah basically to it’s original meaning; the religious meaning so they are truer to the beginning of their annual celebration. We in America know little of Muslim holidays and we in America tend to fear the unknown. We also have so many different so-called Christian denominations that we cannot agree on the true meaning. Jewish and Muslim religions seem to have fewer denominations; none of which are the source of money-making on a grand scale. Being a movie fan; I check the movie listings in TV Week, beginning early in November and continuing through the end of December are primarily Christmas based movies on almost all channels. Is this a dog whistle message format?

    Happy Chanukah, Namaste, Happy Kwanza, Merry Christmas, Happy Winter Solstice… I will add Happy Holiday for those whose spiritual celebrations I know nothing of. Celebrate with your loved ones and friends and enjoy.

  2. Somewhere along the line, each individual religion decided “We’re number 1!” and all others were losers. We have lost the ability to understand that spirituality is an individual thing, that we have to understand, each on our own level. Organized religion has become nothing more than individual political parties, each vying for as many converts to their ideology as possible, based on the idea that since their religion is the “Right” one, we need to “Save” as many as possible.

    We are in the grip of the “Republican” and “Democrat” sects of the “More power for us” religion which is the greed of the corporations.

  3. I thought you were going somewhere completely different with that. Backward religious types reject modernity and fight for their freedom from the dominant society only to outlive and celebrate their faith. Sounds like a post -Obama holiday. Maccabee, Huckabee — hmmmmm… 😀

  4. While modern technology has freed us some, we humans have never lived free from the grip of culture. And that’s generally a good thing. Parents struggle even with the slow changes in culture of today with what we label the “generation gap”.

    “You’re going out dressed like that?!!!!”

    Faith is Faith but religion is culture and only very slow cultural change is tolerable, especially to adults. (Adolescents demand their own culture to which the are even more enslaved.)

    So America tolerated the slow change from democracy to conservatism but we are nearing the limits of our tolerance. There are signs all over.

    We be the Macabbees.

    A little conservatism is tolerable but total and blind allegiance to it is not.

    Hence the entrance and exit of the Trump phenomenon.

    Freedom is addictive. We may be collectively slow but we’re not stupid. We understand that freedom for some is not freedom for all and that’s our culture.

  5. Personally, I consider an individual’s culture and history as important factors that define the individual. I cannot imagine robbing an individual’s personal culture or dismissing an individual’s personal history/culture as one of encouraging tolerance. Our personal history and culture define us at a foundational level, and without that foundation, countless individuals are forever searching to define their base in life.

    I’m fortunate to know from whence I came which does not mean I agree without reservation of all that my ancestral culture/history was built upon; however, I’d never throw my cultural background, my family history under the bus as being detrimental or meaningless in the big scheme of my life. Know thyself and know from whence you came.

    All I know about my ancestral history and culture is summed up in this simple obituary. http://www.tomhansen.net/Hansen%20Genealogy/index.htm

  6. Many Americans have been pushed too far. That’s why they’re resorting to a crazy like Donald Trump. Hillary and Bernie Sanders speak more directly to policies which address the concerns of those whose grip on middle class status is loosening. Unfortunately, policy receives very little coverage compared to the horse races and polling numbers.

  7. @Pete

    “Hence the entrance and exit of the Trump phenomenon. Freedom is addictive. We may be collectively slow but were not stupid.”

    I don’t know about that!

    This is from a form letter received by a friend of mine from the Donald Trump Campaign dated December 14, 2015:

    “I wanted to be the first to share the latest national poll results from the highly respected Monmouth University. The results show me with 41% support and my next closest rival with 14%. Additionally the just released Quinnipiac poll shows me leading in Iowa with 28%. This is really exciting and a testament to your passion for my message and vision.”

    We’re moving into the same “disastrous paradigm” that existed in France in the mid 30’s. Unless Trump and the Tea Party are both effectively engaged, America will lose whether Trump bolts from the Republican Party or the Republican Part y nominee loses the election.

    The worst thing that happened to France is when Leon Blum’s Popular Front won the election in 1935. It marked the doom of France. It only made matters worse.

    The same thing will happen with a Clinton or Sanders victory in November if the Tea Party MOVEMENT is not fully engaged by then.

  8. Marv Kramer:
    The Leon Blum government in France in the 1930s
    created the right to strike
    created collective bargaining
    enacted the law mandating 12 days of paid annual leave
    enacted the law limiting the working week to 40 hours (outside of overtime)
    raised wages (15% for the lowest-paid workers, and 7% for the relatively well-paid)
    stipulated that employers would recognize shop stewards.
    ensured that there would be no retaliation against strikers.
    Additional reforms:
    By mid-August 1936 the parliament had voted for:
    the creation of a national Office du blé (Grain Board or Wheat Office, through which the government helped to market agricultural produce at fair prices for farmers) to stabilize prices and curb speculation
    the nationalization of the arms industries
    loans to small and medium-sized industries
    the raising of the compulsory school-leaving age to 14 years
    a major public works program
    It also raised the pay, pensions, and allowances of public-sector workers and ex-servicemen. The 1920 Sales Tax, opposed by the Left as a tax on consumers, was abolished and replaced by a production tax, which was considered to be a tax on the producer instead of the consumer.

    Marv, by their votes the French people approved these reforms. What part would you and the Tea Party have opposed?

  9. OMG,

    What part would you and the Tea Party have opposed?

    I’m not necessarily against any of those reforms. What I’m saying is: that the French should have FIRST mobilized against the fascist threat before voting in a “lightening rod” Prime Minister, Leon Blum. See “France’s Third Republic” by William Shirer.

    And that’s exactly what we’re failing to do in this country. To be more specific: patriotism needed to have trumped ideology. However, the French took the safer course: Socialist Ideology instead of confronting the right wing threat. More than likely, there was no other course. There wasn’t sufficient “civic courage.”

    But this is the U.S. not France. We need to learn from their experience: the good and the BAD.

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