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Chanukah Then and Now

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

If we were to go back two thousand one hundred and ninety years ago, to the time of Antiochus IV and the Maccabee Revolt, we would find a state of the world and Jewish affairs in many ways similar to today.

Persia was the America of those days, where most Jews resided. Cyrus the Great was the first ruler of a world power who insisted on religious tolerance. He allowed all religions to flourish so long as they were loyal to his rule. Alexander the Great who conquered the Persians adopted his tolerant attitude too. But as a pupil of Aristotle, he had introduced the idea of a culture that could span different continents and religious traditions and would bring intellectual liberty to all.

He did not rule for long. After him, a series of egoistic maniacs divided up his empire. And with one or two exceptions were more concerned with themselves than the welfare of their dominions. Constant fighting, murder, rape, enslavement, and torture. With the ordinary people suffering the most. Just like Putin in Ukraine today. And this metastasized into the Roman empire too.

The Judeans continued their own religious traditions. The High Priest was the titular head of the community. What was once a religious appointment, now became a political one. Rival families of priests bribed or plotted their way to power by playing off the rival powers who succeeded Alexander and had carved up his Empire and then battled each other for supremacy. Judea was caught in the middle.

The priests would be associated with the Sadducees after the dominant priestly family of Zadok (Sadducee is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Zadok). The pro-Greek culture introduced the theatre, circus, and games into Jerusalem, itself. The poor peasants were, in the main, supporters of the rabbis who became known as the Pharisees (literally, the Rebels). They tended to be more resistant to external influences and objected to the corruption of the priests and their opposition to the rabbinic emphasis on the Oral law. The two parties were rivals for power and fought each other with varying degrees of bitterness. Some Judeans, fed up with the conflict fled to the Dead Sea area.

But most of the Jewish population, as nowadays, were well on the road to assimilation into the new exciting Greek world. They would have soon disappeared had Antiochus IV not made the fatal mistake, encouraged by the assimilationists, in 168 BCE, of trying to ban Jewish worship and customs outside of the Temple and then making the Temple itself the center of Greek affairs.

We Jews are a funny lot. Left to our own devices we readily abandon our traditions but let anyone try pushing us around and we get Bolshy! A small group of pious men decided it was time to fight back. Had the few fanatics, fundamentalists, call them what you like, not taken it upon themselves to resist the lure of a free, liberal, self-indulgent world, we would have probably disappeared.

And yet the victory was not at all clear-cut. There were a series of guerrilla wins. But internal politics kept the main forces in Damascus. Yes, Judah, the Maccabee re-took and re-dedicated the Temple, but a Syrian garrison remained in Jerusalem. And when Judah had to confront a serious Syrian army at Bet Zur, he was killed, his brothers fled, and once again it was only politics that got his brother Jonathan back, not the force of arms.

The history of the Maccabee or Hasmonean dynasty is not a happy one. After a promising start, they arrogated both religious and political power. Resorted to violence and forced conversions and supported the priestly classes against the rabbis. Only Queen Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Yannai, brought peace and reconciliation for a while. Before her sons brought about subservience to Rome.

Since the last Maccabees felt more Roman than Jewish, this is why the Talmud chose not to glorify military success as much as spiritual survival. Chanukah for them was the story of religious conviction, resisting and preserving itself. Greek culture had a lot to commend, but morality was not one of them. Multiculturalism was leading to a dead Jewish end. Important and valuable as cultural Judaism was and is, what ultimately differentiates us is our religious tradition. How interesting, then, that the modern Israeli games modeled on the Greeks should call themselves the Maccabiah when the Maccabee revolution was initially against everything cultural that Greece stood for.

The moral of the Chanukah story is that we will not survive as a people without a deep commitment to a Jewish way of life. This does not mean that religion is the only element of Jewish identity that matters. But passion and commitment certainly do. And on the other hand, a fundamentalism that does not accommodate itself to technological advances (whilst preserving its integrity) cannot survive as a vibrant option instead of as a fossil. One can only afford to indulge in other cultures if one is deeply rooted and well-educated in one’s own. Otherwise, the dominant one is sure to triumph, and it is left to a small minority to keep the flame alive.

And the same goes for international affairs today. If one allows corruption, aggression, and violence to prevail, it destroys the fabric of society and the cultural institutions associated with them. They become moral cesspools. “Me” overrides “us.” And as Edmund Burke said, “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” I would add that it also requires those in power blinded by dogmas (or hatred) to perpetuate failed policies!

Jeremy Rosen December 2022


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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