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Why Chanukah Isn't About What You Think It's About

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There are many misconceptions regarding the holiday of Chanukah. One is that it is essentially a celebration of a victory in a war of independence which the Maccabees fought to free the Jewish People from their Syrian overlords. What many do not recognize, though, is that this battle actually began as a civil war within the Jewish nation, a battle between the traditional Maccabees and the Jewish Hellenists.

It was only when the Hellenists started to fear that they would lose that they asked for help from the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus, to intervene on their side, falsely arguing that if the Maccabees won the civil war they would then go on to revolt against the Syrian overlords. The traditionalists, of course, had no intention of doing so. Their original battle was solely with the Jewish Hellenists who wished to prevent them from practicing traditional Judaism.
 
It was only after the Hellenists brought the Syrian-Greeks into the battle on their side, deceiving the Greeks into believing that the Maccabee commitment to traditional Judaism would foster a Jewish revolt, that the war adopted its more well-known character.
 
This leads into the second misconception of the holiday - that it was a battle for freedom of religion. In a certain way, it was, in that the Maccabees wished to be allowed to follow the dictates of traditional Judaism which the Hellenists wished to thwart. This, however, was not because the Maccabees were promoting a value in freedom of religion. They were fighting for what they thought was right, the beliefs of their Torah.
 
The civil war that raged in Judea was a spiritual one, a battle between two entities who each wished to set the spiritual tone of the community. The Hellenists wished for their viewpoints to be the sole philosophy in Judea. The Maccabees, in response, resisted this and, as such, had to fight for their views to be dominant. In this world, there could be no tolerance.
 
The Hellenists wanted to destroy traditional Judaism. In response, the Maccabees had to fight any lasting semblance of this Judaeo-Hellenism in the country. Chanukah is thus not a celebration of the victory of freedom of religion. It marks the celebration of the victory of traditional Judaism over Hellenism.
 
This dispute is forcefully demonstrated in the differing responses to circumcision by the Maccabees and the Hellenists. One of the first practices the Hellenists wished to impose on the populace was to forbid circumcision, an indisputably significant practice of Orthodox Torah. They declared circumcision to be punishable under pain of death.
 
If a Hellenist man was already circumcised, he would furthermore try to revert his own circumcision through some existent medical procedure (such as tying weights to what remained of the foreskin in order to stretch it). Traditionalists defied this edict and were equally adamant in promoting circumcision amongst the populace. The issue was not simply circumcision. The argument reflected a disagreement on a basic attitude towards life and God.
 
Hellenism greatly accepted what was given. The world and nature was seen as essentially unchanging; the task of humanity but to discover its inherent structure. To the Greeks, this was wisdom. As such, the Greeks, seeing the male human body as inherently perfect as created with a foreskin, saw circumcision as a mutilation of the perfect human form and, as such, wrong.
 
Jewish thought, however, sees the world from a totally different perspective. The world was created by God as a place in which humanity could better itself and the world through its actions, thereby growing with a goal of becoming more God-like and closer to God. Circumcision was a prime example of this perspective. God created the male with a flaw, the foreskin, and the call of circumcision was to correct this flaw.
 
The world is not perfect; God is perfect. Through the human striving to perfect the world, humanity connects with God. It is within such recognition and study that one truly reaches wisdom.
 
This is the very lesson of the Chanukah miracle. Reality has its limitation; the small jar of oil would only have lasted one day. God, though, made it that this oil lasted eight days, thereby indicating His Presence above this reality which we must also recognize.
 
We publicize this miracle on Chanukah for the world needs to realize this. There is a purpose to this world – for us to push, with the assistance of God, beyond ourselves to reach for new heights. It was, in fact, created by God for this very purpose. Life calls upon to perfect this world, even going beyond our perceived limitations in our striving for this objective.
 
  Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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