The House of Representatives’ Select Committee on January 6 held its final hearing last Monday—the first day of Chanukah. This offers much to think about.
Around 164 BCE, the Jews won a victory against their Seleucid Greek overlords. This forms the background of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Only recently have some Jews glimpsed the full story.
What’s commonly passed down is that the Seleucid Greeks under Antiochus IV sought to eliminate Jewish practice and defiled the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews, led by Mattathias the priest and his four sons—the most famous being Judah, known as the Maccabee (the Hammer)—fought back. Antiochus’ troops retreated (granted, he had other fish to fry). The Temple was cleaned and rededicated (the meaning of Chanukah). Still, only one day’s worth of ritually pure oil for the menorah (lampstand) was found. The lights burned for eight. That miracle became the holiday’s focus.
Why minimize the military victory? In 63 BCE, Judah—renamed Judea—became a Roman client following conquest by Pompey. In 31 BCE, the Judean king Herod the Great secured the Emperor Octavian’s support to stabilize the country. Still, many Jews chafed under Rome’s rule.
Two rebellions followed. The Romans crushed the first in 70 CE and destroyed the Temple. In 135, Rome put down the Bar Kochba rebellion. The winners executed many Jews, exiled others, forbade Jewish practices, laid waste to the land and renamed it Syria Palaestina, referring to the old Greek-held Syrian province.
For details, see The Books of the Maccabees and Josephus’ The Jewish War.
The rabbis who shaped Chanukah feared provoking Roman wrath (which struck Judea anyway). They emphasized the miracle of the lights rather than the Jews’ war-fighting prowess.
In recent years—perhaps prompted by Israeli military success—the war against Antiochus assumed added significance. But much of its aftermath remains unknown to most Jews.
The rededication of the Temple didn’t end the fighting. As they had during the rebellion. Jewish zealots opposed those who adopted Greek culture; some Jewish men underwent surgery to reverse their circumcisions. After the victory, Jews still fought each other with rival Jewish claimants to the throne in Jerusalem or wherever a capital could be established. Jews also fought the Greeks, who fought other foreign forces, including Egypt, all seeking to control Judah, the crossroad linking Asia and Africa.
Judea might have been able to bargain for better conditions, if not achieve long-term victory over the Greeks and Romans, had they not engaged in what the rabbis termed sinat chinam—baseless hatred towards each other. The rabbis considered this the reason both Temples fell.
From an American perspective, fireworks on July Fourth may suggest the inspirational flames of Chanukah candles. But wisdom and hope remain in short supply when patriotic fervor denies others’ validity as citizens, and political leaders exhibit a woeful lack of integrity by permitting demagogues to trample our Constitution. Chanukah jar the national memory of Abraham Lincoln’s statement in 1858: “A house divided cannot stand.”
People of good will can disagree on issues. Mutual respect can help bridge those divides and produce even better ideas. Sadly, in recent years, America’s political divisions have generated far more heat than light.
Let’s all light a candle—or eight this Sunday night—to help illuminate the darkness.
Wishing you a Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas and a New Year of peace, health and fulfillment.
The post will take off next Friday and return on January 6.
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