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The Real Story of Chanukah And What It Should Mean for American Jewry Today

On Saturday night, the Jewish people will start commemorating Chanukah, commonly known the Festival of Lights. For the next eight nights, we will light the Menorah (what we refer to as the chanukiah), where each branch represents a singular night where the oil miraculously burned after the Maccabees rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. While Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday compared to the holy festivals of Sukkos, Pesach, and Shavuos, it represents an important moment in our history and it embodies the Jewish people’s soul.

The story begins in Judea, the Jewish people’s indigenous homeland where Israel and the disputed territories currently exist. Prior to the Maccabean Revolt, there were two Hellenistic empires in the Levant: The Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire. At one point, they were united under Alexander the Great of Macedon. Following his death over 100 years prior, a leadership dispute resulted in competing political and military alliances that resulted in the two Greek kingdoms splitting control over land. In 198 BCE, Antiochus III of the Selecuid Empire defeated the Ptolemies, gaining control of Judea. Initially, Antiochus III promised the Jewish people that they would be allowed to live under the laws of the Torah instead of the Hellenized laws he imposed in his other territories.

Despite the freedom the Jewish people possessed to maintain their traditions, many Jews opted out of their culture to adopt Hellenized customs and beliefs. The Hellenized Jews, in turn, managed to acquire more power and influence amongst their Greek conquerors than the High Priest of Jerusalem. It was not the first time that the Jewish people found themselves divided in its history, but the significance of the rise of Hellenized Jewry changes how we understand the story of Chanukah.

When Antiochus IV came into power in 175 BCE, he dramatically altered the empire’s goodwill to the Jews that his father promised by ousting Onias, the High Priest at the time, in favor of Jason, a Seleucid loyalist. Jason had promised to pay the Seleucid king a very high tribute if he used his power to remove Onias and if the king helped build a gymnasium in Jerusalem. Seeing it as an opportunity to increase the revenues of the empire and to acquire more control over his subjects, Antiochus IV complied. In his capacity as High Priest, Jason wrote a decree stating that Jewish law no longer dictated the holy city. This created deep divisions within the Jewish people, who believed that Jason’s actions were an abomination to the title he held.

Tensions rose dramatically between the Rabbinic Jews and the Hellenized Jews when Antiochus IV removed Jason in favor of Menalaus. Menalaus oversaw the murder of Onias and allowed his brother Lysimachus to steal various sacred items within Jerusalem. While the Rabbinic Jews revolted and arrested Lysimachus for his criminal acts, Antiochus IV acquitted him of all the charges when Menalaus promised a larger tribute to the empire. To add insult to injury, Menalaus also oversaw new projects that increased the rate of Hellenization within the Jewish people. When the Antiochus IV went to Egypt for a military campaign in 168 BCE, Jason started a revolt to reclaim the priesthood following false reports of the king dying in battle. It failed.

Once Antiochus IV discovered that Jason’s revolt took place, he decided to punish the entirety of the Jewish people for their supposed disloyalty. As such, the king prohibited the Jews from praying in the Holy Temple, keeping Shabbos, performing circumcisions, and any study of Torah. Those anti-Jewish decrees had the sole intention of destroying Rabbinic Judaism. These events led to the rise of both Mattathias and Judah, who believed not only that Jason and Menalaus were illegitimate priests of Jerusalem, but also that the Jewish people should no longer live under Antiochus IV’s rule. Two years after the king began to oppress the Jewish people, the Maccabeean Revolt commenced. The revolt resulted in the land of Judea being liberated by the Maccabees and the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty, the second independent Jewish kingdom in the land.

What most American Jews do not realize about the story of Chanukah is that it was more than just a story of the Jewish people fighting against the oppressive Seleucid Empire. It was also a story of a civil war between two camps of Jews: One who believed that the Jewish people should maintain their Halachic traditions and the other who wished to assimilate with their oppressors. It serves as a lesson to the importance of Jewish unity in troubling times where the Jewish people’s very existence is threatened by evil. Despite the challenges that the Jewish people fared, the Jewish people managed to prevail not only against anti-Jewish oppressors but also the divisions within their own community.

Today, most American Jews identify on the left of the political spectrum and many remain dismayed over Donald Trump’s election as President. Furthermore, some far-left Jews went berserk over Trump’s choice for US Ambassador to Israel and have falsely painted themselves as representatives of American Jewry. As a result, our community remains deeply divided and it will most certainly not change any time soon. However, starting Saturday night, most of us will light the chanukiah, recite the three blessings for the first night of Chanukah, and recall the story of the Jewish people fighting back against oppression and overcoming one of the most deeply divided moments in our people’s history. It should also serve as a reminder that it never helps the Jewish people to side with those who openly seek to destroy us. Instead, we should do everything to fight back against our oppressors and all who wish to submit us under tyrannical rule.

In the spirit of Chanukah, I wish everyone Chag Sameach and I pray that we continue to embody the spirit of the Maccabees for generations to come.

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