Chanukah, the least important of the great Jewish holidays to our forefathers (it is the only post-Biblical Jewish holiday), now shows promise, because of its proximity to Christmas, and because of unhappy events in recent Jewish history, of becoming one of the most important. Owing to these same causes the festival has in many quarters taken on a tone and focus in keeping with neither its traditional significance nor its broad religious meaning—or, at least, so many believe. Theodor H. Gaster, visiting professor in the history of religions at the University of Rome, and formerly professor of comparative religions at Dropsie College, considers here what meanings we may justly claim for the annual Chanukah festival in the light of its historical origins and the needs of our present situation.
Those of us who have been brought up to believe that the Chanukah light is a brave candle shining in a naughty world are naturally apt to inquire in more critical moments, just how bright is its gleam and how dark the encircling gloom. In other words, what is the broadly human significance of the festival, apart from its interest as a historical commemoration!? When we look to conventional expositions for an answer, we cannot fail to be both surprised and dismayed at what we find. Mostly they consist in apologetic distortions of history, narrowly nationalistic and selfserving, couched for the most part in parochial cliches and stereotypes. Is Chanukah, then, devoid of more universal human meaning and values? On the contrary, once the apologetic varnish is removed, few religious festivals possess richer human values or a more timely relevance to our present needs.
In the conventional exposition, as set forth in sermon and broadcast, or in textbook and Sunday school instruction, the central theme of Chanukah is usually represented as the victory of Hebraism over Hellenism— that is, of Jewish over Greek values. The revolt of the Maccabees against the power of Antiochus IV is considered, as it were, no more than the particular but, so to speak, routine historical setting within which this momentous symbolic triumph happened to be achieved. The antagonists in the struggle are the people of Jehovah on the one hand, and of Zeus on the other, but these chief characters of the drama are only superficially linked with the authentic realities of either the politics or the culture of the period: they are little more than conventional lay figures in the simplest moral fable. The Jews stand for the Torah-bound—that is, morally and religiously bound—way of life, and the Greeks are a collection of hedonists dedicated to the pursuit of physical and aesthetic delights and to the cultivation and worship of beauty. The Greeks, we are told, saw religion in beauty, whereas the Jews saw beauty in the divine law; the battle between them was, in fact, a challenge flung from Zion against Helicon, and the victory was that of the synagogue over the gymnasium. Greek culture, in this view, is a heathen abomination, and the cleansing of the temple by Judah and his followers removed defilement not only from the House of God but equally from the lives of men.
What is wrong with this presentation is that it totally adapts both the authentic facts and the true religious meaning to fit a superficial romanticized ideal, and, far from gaining by the transaction, results only in obscuring what is really significant both in the narrative and in the festival. The events that led up to the institution of Chanukah can be pieced together in some detail from the First and Second Books of Maccabees (in the Apocrypha of the Bible), from the narrative of Josephus, and from the writings of such Greek historians as Polybius and Diodorus Siculus. It is apparent from these accounts that the issue was not at all the vindication of Jewish over Greek values; and the struggle was anything but a mass uprising of the Jewish people.
What really happened?1 In 167 B.C.E., the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, whose dominions included Palestine and Syria, anxious to weld together the diverse elements of his empire, decided to inaugurate a totalitarian policy, involving as its key stroke the establishment of a “state church” under which the several religions of his subjects were to be subsumed. The god of this “church” was to be the Greek Zeus, with whom all of the national gods were to be promptly identified; and in order to indicate that it was simply an organ of the state, Antiochus claimed—in accordance with a practice common among the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings—to be that deity’s visible incarnation, arrogating to himself the title of “Epiphanes,” or “(God) Manifest,” and ordering that title henceforth to be stamped upon the coins of the realm. This policy, largely inspired by the necessity of presenting a united front against the ambitions of Rome on the one hand and of the rival power of the Ptolemies on the other, constituted a break with the system of cultural self-determination and pluralism, to use our modern phrases, which had prevailed since the days of Alexander the Great—a system under which the empire had been regarded rather as a union of vassal peoples, politically subservient to a central government, but culturally and religiously independent.
In pursuit of his policy, Antiochus issued a decree prohibiting, on pain of death, any expression of Jewish distinctiveness, and ordering the Temple services to be accommodated to the new national religion. When his officers visited the small town of Modin (today called el Arba’in) to supervise enforcement of the measure, an aged Jewish priest named Mattathias, of the family of the Hasmoneans, offered resistance.
The words in which he did so are extremely significant. “No matter,” said he to the royal emissaries, “whether all the other peoples in the realm abandon each its ancestral form of worship, I and my sons will go on walking in the covenant of our fathers.” These words are usually taken as a proud and courageous affirmation of Jewish loyalties, and such indeed they are. But they are also something more, for modern studies have shown that the phrase “to walk in the ways of one’s fathers” is commonly employed in documents of the Hellenistic period relating to the conferment of cultural or religious independence, not only upon Jews, but also upon other national groups. In using this phrase, therefore, Mattathias was proclaiming his intention not only of remaining faithful to Israel’s traditional covenant with Jehovah, but also of defending the established civic rights of the Jews against arbitrary abrogation.
Thus, the resistance had two objectives. First, it was designed to safeguard the actual identity of the Jews. In Israel—as throughout the ancient Near East—church and state were coextensive, religion being not so much a matter of confession and belief as the sanctioned regimen of communal economy. Any interference with the administration of the Temple or with the practice of traditional religious rites therefore involved ipso facto an impairment, if not a dissolution, of Israel’s distinctive identity.
Second, the resistance was designed to safeguard the constitutional status quo. In this, Mattathias and his followers were championing a cause which, transcending the particular interests of the Jews, extended also to all the national groups within the empire.
It is clear, however, that neither of these issues involved an ideological conflict between Jewish and Greek values—a struggle between Hebraism on the one hand and Hellenism on the other. The issue was simply and starkly one of group survival and group rights.
An equally serious distortion of history is the prevalent idea that the Maccabean revolt represented a people’s uprising of the Jews against their Syrian overlord. For while it is true that the movement eventually attracted a large number of supporters, the record makes it perfectly plain that official spokesmen of the Jewish community were hostile to it and, moreover, that the bulk of the Jewish population was already so far gone in the process of assimilation that the championship of Israel’s distinctive identity meant nothing to it. The high priest at the time was a rank “collaborationist,” and the accredited leaders of the Jews were what might be described as “Hellenes of the Mosaic persuasion.” It was only after Mattathias and his followers had gained the support of the religious pietists and, by a fanatical vigilantist campaign, had forced the apostates back into the fold, that they could muster sufficient strength to offer serious opposition to the state. Thus we read in the First Book of Maccabees (2:45-48): “Mattathias and his associates went the rounds, tearing down the heathen altars and forcibly circumcising children upon whom the operation had not been performed. . . . And they pursued after the sons of pride . . . and they delivered the Law out of the hand of the gentiles and out of the hand of the kings; neither suffered they the sinner to triumph.” As this passage indicates, the Maccabean revolt was from first to last a minority movement, directed as much against degeneration within as against oppression from without. And therein, indeed, lies no small part of its true significance, and hence of the permanent lesson of Chanukah.
Nor is it only on historical grounds that the conventional presentation of the festival is open to objection. Equally assailable is the very antithesis it implies between Hebraism and Hellenism, for this is, as we have suggested, more a contrast between artificial modern stereotypes than between actual cultures as they existed at the time. No balanced person believes today that the Frenchman is necessarily amorous, the Englishman taciturn, or the Jew sly. In the more abstract realm of culture and ideas, however, the stereotype still reigns. To the average American, for instance, Mohammedanism is still a compound of muezzins, sheikhs, the Koran, and a permit to have four wives; while the epic struggle between the democratic and Communist theories of society tends to be conceived, in the popular mind, as a trading of blows between a stereotype Main Street on the one hand and a stereotype Kremlin on the other. The same kind of facile generalization and superficial caricature produces the conventional antithesis between Hebrew and Greek cultures. For while it is true that the Greeks, by and large, preferred speculation to revelation as a means of interpreting the universe, and while it is true that the Greeks were inclined to be less impressed than were the Hebrews with the authority of transcendental law, it is a pernicious exaggeration to regard aesthetics as exclusively “Greek” and morals as exclusively “Hebrew,” and only an insensitive and unperceptive philistinism can pit the one against the other as opposing values. The issues raised by Greek tragedies and discussed in many of the Platonic dialogues are essentially moral, even if the approach to them is through philosophy rather than revelation; while such Greek gnomic poets as Theognis bear ample testimony to the fact that Greek standards of ethics were inspired by something more than worldly shrewdness and practical expedience. Similarly, the prophetic and poetic books of the Bible—the speeches of God to Job, for example—suffice to show that an aesthetic, even sensuous, appreciation of nature was by no means foreign to the Hebrew temperament.
Moreover, even if the alleged contrast between Greek and Hebrew culture could in fact be maintained for the Classical age of the former and the earlier Biblical periods of the latter, it certainly did not obtain in the time of the Maccabees. For the so-called Hellenism of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires was no exemplar of the ideals of Periclean Athens, but a strange, bizarre amalgam of Greek and Oriental influences. Indeed, it is significant that the Zeus Olympios whose worship Antiochus sought to impose and whose statue he imported into the Temple at Jerusalem, was not the Zeus Olympios of Classical Greece but a hybrid of both Hellenic and Asiatic extraction.
Equally misleading is the presentation of the Maccabean revolt as a resistance to the abstract principle of totalitarianism. Such a picture has an obvious appeal to the contemporary mind, but is totally incorrect. For (he fact is that the distinctive Jewish culture which Mattathias and his followers sought to defend and preserve was itself essentially totalitarian, resting on the theory that every aspect of life must be governed by the dictates of a transcendental law (Torah) and subsumed under the contours of a Divine Plan supposedly revealed in that law. Nor, indeed, were the Maccabees prepared to compromise this totalitarian theory through any deference to individual conscience. The concept of personal liberty did not enter into their outlook; as we have seen, those who did not conform to their program were made to do so by force and regimentation.
An alternative popular presentation of Chanukah portrays the Syrian monarch as a kind of early Hitler and his assault upon the Jews as inspired only by virulent hatred of them. This, too, is a caricature. There is no evidence whatsoever that Antiochus was an anti-Semite, and the explanation has been advanced only by a process of ex post facto reasoning or by a desire to account on a psychological basis for Antiochus’ sudden break with the more tolerant policy of his predecessors. The fact is that Antiochus was motivated entirely by political considerations.
He had just returned from a costly expedition against the rival power of the Ptolemies in Egypt, having virtually subjugated that country and actually captured its king, Ptolemy VI. But the peace which ensued was an uncertain one. The Egyptians had prompdy placed on the throne their defeated sovereign’s younger brother, and although Antiochus tried astutely to use him as a puppet, the arrangement did not work. The old captive continued to plot resistance, and the ambitions of Rome in relation to Egypt were providing a further obstacle to the plans of the Seleucid emperor. In addition, many of the national groups within his own borders, and among them a goodly portion of the Jews, were partial to the Egyptian cause, so that the possibility of a “fifth column” was ever present. Antiochus was therefore faced with a grave situation, and perhaps the only way in which he could hope to meet it was to impose by force a unity which he could not create by persuasion. Moreover, the campaign against Egypt had put a strain on his finances, and the treasures of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem offered a source of replenishment. What he did was simply to commandeer, in the interests of the state, a particular section of the national wealth; and it may even be supposed that a further motive was to prevent the possible use of this wealth to assist his foes.2
All of this does not mean, of course, that Antiochus did not treat the Jews with extreme harshness and barbarity; the records state that his confiscation of the Temple treasures (in 169 B.C.E.) was accompanied by a massacre of some forty thousand Jews in Jerusalem alone. The point is, however, that his measures were dictated by political expediency and not by hostility to Jews or Judaism per se, so that the conventional portrayal of him as a mere bloodthirsty antiSemite is, once again, a serious distortion of history. As a matter of fact, the measures which Antiochus directs against the Jews were directed also against other national groups. The Samaritans, for example, were likewise obliged to turn over their temple on Mount Gerizim to the cult of Zeus; while at Daphne even the Greek Apollo had—apparently—to take second place beside the new national god. The policy inaugurated by the monarch was based on what he conceived to be the stern necessities of a political situation, not on mere racial bigotry, and the proscription of distinctive Jewish practices was motivated not by ideological opposition to them but by the urgent need of consolidating a diverse and polyglot population in the face of a national emergency. It is important to draw a distinction—all too often ignored—between primary and incidental oppression, to avoid judging motives by effects, and to realize that many forms of suffering which Jews undergo are no more the products of discrimination or anti-Semitism than is an epidemic or a railroad disaster which happens to claim Jews among its victims.
If, then, the conventional picture is distorted, and Chanukah does not in fact celebrate a victory of Hebraism over Hellenism, or a mass uprising of the Jews against the principle of totalitarianism, or a triumphant resistance to anti-Semitic bigotry, what does the festival celebrate? What is its permanent and universal value, and what relevance has it for the present day? The answer is implicit in the analysis which we have given above, for although our examination of the problem may have seemed, at first glance, unduly negative, it in fact issues in positive conclusions. These may be stated briefly under three heads.
First: Chanukah commemorates and celebrates the first serious attempt in history to proclaim and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity in the nation. The primary aim of the Maccabees was, as we have seen, to preserve their own Jewish identity and to safeguard for Israel the possibility of continuing its traditional mission. Though inspired, however, by the particular situation of their own people, their struggle was instinct with universal implications. For what was really being defended was the principle that in a diversified society the function of the state is to embrace, not subordinate, the various constituent cultures, and that the complexion and character of the state must be determined by a natural process of fusion on the one hand and selection on the other, and not by the arbitrary imposition of a single pattern on all elements.
Seen from this point of view, therefore, Chanukah possesses broad human significance and is far more than a mere Jewish national celebration. As a festival of liberty, it celebrates more than the independence of one people—it glorifies the right to freedom of all peoples.
Second: Chanukah affirms the universal truth that the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified positive assertion of the principles and values which that oppression threatens. What inspired the movement of the Maccabees was not simply an abstract and academic dislike of tyranny but a desire to safeguard and evince an identity and way of life which was in danger of extinction. It therefore consisted not only in a fight against Antiochus but also in a fight for Judaism, the military uprising going hand in hand with an almost fanatical crusade for the internal regeneration of the Jewish people.
The combination was not fortuitous nor was it due solely—as some scholars have asserted—to the pressure of the pietists whom Mattathias and Judah rallied to their cause. On the contrary, it was fundamental. For the Maccabees, the Jews were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a society of men dedicated to attesting the presence of God and to exemplifying his law and dispensation on earth. It was for the continuance of this religious-ethical mission as God’s witnesses that they were primarily fighting, and the struggle for civil rights was merely a means to this high purpose. The real issue at stake was not the right of the Jews to be like everyone else, but their right to be different; and victory meant not the attainment of civic equality (which, after all, was what Antiochus was offering!) but the renewal, after its forced suspension, of that particular and distinctive way of life which embodied and exemplified the Jewish mission. The mark of that victory, therefore, was not a triumphal parade hut an act of dedication—the cleansing of the defiled Temple. Moreover, when the Jews wished to perpetuate the memory of their achievement, what they chose to turn into an annual festival was not the day of some military success but the week in which the House of God had been cleansed and the fire rekindled on the altar. There is an important meaning in this, one feels, for our own day, and especially in connection with the problem of safeguarding civil rights.
Third: Chanukah “teaches the value of the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion. The struggle which it commemorates was the struggle of a small band, not of a whole people; and it was a struggle not only against oppression from without but equally against corruption and complacence within. It was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”3 This is a festival glorifying not the mass, but the dedicated few.
It cannot be denied that Chanukah possesses certain militant, revolutionary undertones, and these have often conspired to create around it a certain atmosphere of embarrassment. During the time of the Roman administration, for example, there were not wanting those who considered it imprudent, even dangerous, for the Jewish minority openly to observe a festival celebrating rebellion against a ruling power; and it is significant that Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the compiler of the Mishnah, tried desperately to suppress any reference to Chanukah, even as he sought also to minimize the importance of Purim, another occasion purportectly commemorating victory over an alien sovereign.
A curious reflection of this attitude may be seen in the prominence which has come to be attached to the Chanukah lights. These lights are not even mentioned in the Books of the Maccabees. Modern scholars are therefore inclined to think that they had originally nothing whatsoever to do with the festival but, like the candles at Christmas, represent only an adaptation of the familiar pagan custom of lighting candles or kindling fires at the winter solstice as a means of reluming the decadent sun (see my article “What the Feast of Booths Celebrates,” in COMMENTARY, October 1952). The significant thing is, however, that embarrassment over the more militant aspects of Chanukah caused the Jews to seize upon this purely secular and even heathen custom, Judaizing it by an appropriate legend, in order to divert attention into more innocuous quarters. (Mutatis mutandis, it is as if the Catholic Church, nervous about the implications of the Christmas story, had officially substituted the Yule log for the cradle in the manger as the symbol of the day when Jesus was bom.)
Nevertheless, with characteristic genius, the Jews made of this originally foreign and heathen custom the most fitting symbol of the festival’s real message; for the lights were taken to represent the Temple candelabrum which Judah and his followers had rekindled, and thus came to epitomize the truth that Chanukah is not simply the V-day of the national victory of the Maccabees but essentially a feast of dedication. What had originally symbolized the mere physical regeneration of the sun, or of nature, from year to year, was thus transmuted into a symbol of revival on the spiritual plane, becoming indeed, as our fathers told us, a brave light in a naughty world.
Nor is it only the ancient sages who have had qualms about the Chanukah story. Modern readers of it have likewise felt a certain awkward and embarrassing inconsistency between the Maccabees’ zeal for Jewish rights and their intolerant persecution of those who happened to disagree with their oudook; the forced circumcision of Jewish infants, for example, seems strangely incongruous with the championship of freedom of belief. The explanation, however, is very simple: we must not read modern ideas and ideals into an ancient story. At the time of the Maccabees, the modern concept of personal liberty of conscience had not yet been developed, and religion was a collective regimen rather than an individual persuasion. Accordingly, what the Maccabees were out to defend was not the right of every individual to worship God in his own way, but rather the mission of Israel as a collective unit to serve as God’s witnesses and to exemplify his Torah. Those who refused to accept this obligation were therefore just as much enemies of their cause as were any foreign oppressors, so that the Maccabees’ policy towards them, however distasteful it may seem by later standards, was at the time both logical and consistent. Our modern revulsion at this policy is simply an example of the way the insights and perspectives of subsequent ages often call into question the ideals underlying traditional institutions. The right to diversity within the Jewish group is a later development in Judaism, and one, incidentally, which at this juncture in our own history seems to require reassertion, and perhaps especially at Chanukah time and against the Chanukah zealots.
However it is interpreted, and no matter where the emphasis is placed, the significance of Chanukah for the modern Jew stems from the story of the Maccabees and depends on the tradition that it was founded by them to commemorate the triumph of their cause and the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. Modern scholars have suspected, however, that the real origin of the festival may lie elsewhere—possibly even in a more ancient pagan institution which the Jews adopted and then rationalized by this story.
A favorite starting point for such speculation is the fact that in the Second Book of Maccabees (1:9), when the Jews of Jerusalem exhort their brethren in Egypt to adopt the annual celebration of Chanukah, they describe it as “the Festival of Booths in the month of Kislev.” This has suggested to some authorities that Chanukah was in origin simply a “postponed Succoth,” and support for this view is drawn from the express statement in that same book that Judah and his followers “kept the eight days with rejoicing in the manner of the Feast of Booths . . . carrying wands wreathed with green and seasonable branches and palms” (10:7-8). The true explanation of these puzzling phrases would seem, however, to be quite different. The fact is that both the First and Second Temples had been dedicated at the Feast of Booths (see I Kings 8:2, 65; Nehemiah 8:13-18), and in order to dramatize the occasion, Judah and his followers made a point of copying the traditional ritual of that festival when they cleansed and rededicated the sacred edifice. Accordingly, when the Jews of Jerusalem described the festival as “the Feast of Booths in the month of Kislev” their words are not to be taken literally but mean simply “the December version of Succoth.”
Another view starts from the Chanukah lights, fanning them indeed into a veritable blaze. This view, which has recently been developed and elaborated, with characteristic brilliance and ingenuity, by Dr. Julian Morgenstern of Hebrew Union College, claims that back of Chanukah there lies a pagan festival of either the autumn equinox or the winter solstice, both of which occasions were (and still are) marked in many parts of the world by the lighting of candles or fires. In that case, the resemblance to the equinoctial Feast of Booths (when, according to the Mishnah, bonfires and torches were indeed lit in Jerusalem) would, of course, have readily sprung to mind, and this would sufficiently account for the description of the festival as “Booths in Kislev.” There is, however, a very obvious objection to this view, and it was stated clearly many years ago by that redoubtable student of ancient religions, Professor Martin Nilsson: Chanukah is determined by the lunar calendar, whereas equinoxes and solstices depend, of course, on a solar reckoning; accordingly, there is no assurance that Chanukah will in fact coincide with either event.
Lastly, there is the present writer’s theory which, while accepting the historicity of the traditional account, suggests that the peculiar form of celebration which Judah and his followers chose was motivated not only by a desire to imitate the dedication of the First and Second Temples at Succoth but also to satirize the contemporaneous Greek festival of the Rural Dionysia. This festival fell towards the end of December. In many places it was observed only in alternate years, and it took the form of a wild revel. Following a period of “purification,” the celebrants donned the skins of fawns or foxes, wreathed their heads with ivy leaves, carried in their hands wands bound with green leaves and topped with pine cones, and rushed out to the hills where, in the glare of torches, they passed the night in frenzied dances and in the singing of hymns. Every now and again, they would dip their torches into water or wine so that they might sizzle for a moment and then burst into brighter blaze, thereby symbolizing the fiery nature of Dionysus and of the new light which was believed to dawn upon the world whenever he appeared among men.
When this picture is kept in mind, the subtlety of Judah’s parody becomes immediately apparent. “The preliminary purifications found their counterpart in the cleansing and purifying of the House of God from the contamination of the pagans themselves; the festal parade, in the procession of pilgrims around the altar; the carrying of wreathed wands, in the bearing of the lulab; the wild shouts, in the chanting of psalms; the blazing torches, in the relumed candelabrum. And the point of the satire was not lost upon a later generation. The writer of the Second Book of Maccabees takes pains to drive it home with a number of extra touches. The services of God, he says, were now resumed after a lapse cf two years—a statement which combines fidelity to fact with a sly dig at the biennial revels of Dionysus. The participants, he observes, felt a distinct sense of relief at being no more obliged to live in the hills like wild beasts—again a sly allusion to the votaries of Dionysus, who were perfectly content to abide there clad in the likeness of foxes and fawns. The hymns, he adds, were songs of praise to God for having prospered the purification of His place—words in which we may detect a caustic reference to the preliminary ‘purifications’ of the worshippers of Dionysus. Jehovah—runs the implicationearned the thanks of His people for helping them to clear away from His shrine the filth of the ‘purified’ pagans. Lastly, with a sidelong glance at the ‘new light’ kindled in so bizarre a fashion by the ecstatic followers of the heathen god, our author dryly but wryly throws out the observation that the fire needed for the service of Jehovah was obtained by the purely natural process of striking flints!”4
Whether any of these theories is right cannot now be known; all of them are based on deductions from fragmentary and inconclusive evidence. But they are not mere academic trivialities; for if any one of them is vindicated, it will shed important light on how, in the course of the ages, the festival has developed and been transmuted by the Jewish genius, and that development and transmutation into a religious and humanistic festival of broad universal meaning is an integral part of its significance. At the moment, however, we must simply wait for more light of the kind that comes from further knowledge and commentary, and new insights. Perhaps, after all, there is a profound lesson in the fact that the Chanukah lights increase from day to day and that their full radiance is achieved only by gradual stages through the centuries.
1 The background of the Maccabean movement is excellently and expertly summarized in Elias Bickerman's The Maccabees (Schocken Books, New York, 1947).
2 The background of Antiochus' policies is admirably sketched in H. L. Jansens monograph Die Politik des Antiochos IV (Oslo: Det Norske Videnskafs-Akademi, 1943).
3 Quoted from the present writer's Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition (New York, 1950).
4 Quoted from op. cit., Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition.