What are Jews Celebrating on Chanukah?
By Larry Domnitch
What are Jews celebrating on Chanukah?
It is about the wars; the victory of the few over the many? The amazing Maccabeen victories over Greek armies were battles in a drawn out conflict that would last for decades after the Chanukah saga. There would be future defeats as well. Perhaps Jews are celebrating their freedom from oppressive rule! But freedom was only temporary as the Jews would eventually face persecution under Antiochus successor. Or maybe it was the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem that Jews celebrate. However the Temple was eventually destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
In the days of antiquity, following the conquest of the world by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, each nation had accepted each others' deities and morals as prescribed by the universal creed of the day, Hellenism. However, the Jews tenaciously clung to their Torah and were the exception to the universal global trend. Their unique practices were largely tolerated for the next one hundred and fifty years until Antiochus Epiphanes IV became emperor. Antiochus, with the encouragement of Jewish adherents to Hellenism, embarked upon a policy of forcing that universal ideology upon the Jews. Jewish rites were prohibited and idolatry practices were mandated. Those in violation were severely punished.
If the Jews simply acquiesced, and abandoned their heritage, they could have spared themselves much suffering, however most chose a different path; that of defiance. Some ran and hid in the hills, others in the corners of their homes, and they continued to keep their traditions. The Talmud mentions some who had defied authority: Channah and her sons who with their mother's support refused to bow to the emperor resulting in their own deaths and the elderly sage Elazar who, in front of a large audience refused to partake of a food that merely resembled pig, and as a result was executed. His parting words were, "I will leave an example of strength to die willingly with courage for the perfect and holy Torah." This was not the response that Antiochus had expected.
Resistance to religious persecution is central to the theme of Chanukah. During that era, a precedent was set for future generations of Jews who would look to their example. When Roman armies first entered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Jews were ready to die rather then participate in a pagan rite when ordered to do so by the Roman general Pompey. Ten years later, when the Roman emperor Caligula demanded that Jews act as all peoples and worship his image, Jews again were ready to defy the emperor regardless of the consequences. Over one hundred and fifty years later, when the Roman emperor Hadrian sought to turn Jerusalem into a pagan colony, again the Jews resisted. This time they organized a full scale revolt under the leadership of Simon Bar Kochba against the mighty Roman Empire.
During Christian rule for over fifteen hundred years, Jews endured all forms of persecution from blood libel accusations, to inquisitions, to massacres. As during the times of the Maccabbes they resisted, but could have been spared the endless suffering if they capitulated to their demands.
In Islamic countries over the centuries, Jews choose to live humiliated as an underclass of Dhimmis, often persecuted, but willingly accepted their predicament rather then submit to conversion.
The examples are far too numerous to count. Two thousand years history is replete with sacrifice and martyrdom.
The notion of self sacrifice has been glorified in Jewish history. Rabbi Akiva's defiance of the Roman emperor Hadrian's bans against Torah study, and his martyrdom is one example. During the era of inquisitional rule the author of the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Joseph Karo spoke of martyrdom as the most sanctified of acts. Under Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, when tens of thousands of young Jewish recruits in the Tsar's army faced enormous pressure including torture to accept baptism, their brave resistance prompted the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time, the Tzemach Tzedek to compare their suffering to that of the Jews under the rule of Antiochus. The Tzemach Tzedek considered these boys known as 'Cantonists' to be the greatest heroes among the Jews.
Yet why rejoice if so much of Chanukah and its legacy are linked to suffering and persecution? Perhaps Chanukah should be a gloomy and depressing holiday? What is celebrated is the fact that the sacrifices by so many during the time of the Maccabbees and over the millennium as well, were not in vein. By acknowledging their sacrifices and that there are things worth sacrificing for, we are celebrating life, and the endurance of the Jews as a people.
There are special messages we can glean from Chanukah in our own times.
Within the confines of free and open societies, Chanukah is also a most appropriate time to ask what being a Jew means and how we can use the freedom we are blessed with to perpetuate that eternal legacy.
Larry Domnitch is the author of, "The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar" recently released by Devora Publishing
from the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine