At the risk of coming off as Rabbi Grinch, I think it’s time you knew the real story of Hanukkah…
The brave heroes of our story, the Maccabees, came from a priestly dynasty known as the Hasmoneans. The leader of the Hasmoneans, Mattithias and his son Judah were what we might call today religious zealots. In 167 BCE they led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid rulers in the land of Israel but they also fought bitterly against the assimilated, Hellenized Jews of their day.
You can read all about this in the Books of the Maccabees, which can be found in the Apocrypha – a collection of extra-Biblical writings that never quite made the final cut. After plowing your way through these exceedingly graphic and nasty accounts of of Jewish fratricide, forced circumcision and other bloody examples of Jew against Jew, you’ll understand why. (You’ll also understand why Mel Gibson was once interested in developing this material into a movie…)
While we are fond of telling the story of the Maccabean victory and their re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, we don’t often tell the story of what happened to the independent Jewish state they established in the land of Israel afterwards. That’s because for the most part, the sequel to the Hanukkah story was a fairly ignoble chapter in the annals of Jewish history.
The Hasmonean dynasty eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when these priestly rulers weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. So much for the second Jewish commonwealth.
Yes, boys and girls, that’s the real story of Hanukkah. Don’t worry, I haven’t Scrooged-out here completely – I’ll be lighting the Hanukkiah tonight just like you. But maybe, as we light our candles, we should take some time out to ponder how we might commemorate this complex legacy as 21st century American Jews.
In an article last year in Slate, Rabbi James Ponet considered this very question by asking “was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity?” Great question. If you could put your dreidel down for just a moment, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts and comments.