Hanukkah: Part III—The Maccabees and Modernity

By Jonathan Berkowitz

Why are there two books of Maccabees? We learn from the study of history that there is often more than one way to interpret an event. That is perhaps one explanation for the historical Hanukkah as described in Macc. 1 and the mystical Hanukkah as described in Macc. 2.

The author of Macc. 1 was apparently an eyewitness and disciple of the Maccabees. Recent archaeological work on caves near the Dead Sea from the period of the Maccabean revolt provides concrete confirmation of the events. Macc. 1 tells us that early in the rebellion Jewish fighters took refuge in the caves but were slaughtered by the Greek armies because they would not fight on Shabbat. However, no evidence has yet been found of golden angels’ support of the Maccabean army, as described in Macc. 2. It is not historical; it is spiritual propaganda.

Why such disparate stories? Macc. 1 was written in Hebrew, in Judea, with Hellenism and the Greek occupation as its focus. The hero is Judah, and the triumph led to a Jewish state with Jewish kings. Macc. 2 was written in Greek by Diaspora Jews strongly embedded in their Hellenistic communities. They portray Simon, the High Priest, as the hero who triumphantly led a return of a Torah-observing community bolstered by miraculous events and martyrs.

The Jews of Macc. 1 will live in their own country. But the Jews of Macc. 2 will have to live in Exile. Only by strict observance of the commandments will they survive. The modern State of Israel and the rest of Diaspora Jewry form a contemporary parallel to the communities in the two books of the Maccabees. We in the Diaspora need to create our unique identity within a larger non-Jewish world while Jews in Israel have a very different slant on identity. We have two distinct approaches to Jewish survival today, just as in history. Is Hanukkah the Festival of Light or the Festival of Might? Who’s to say which is right? Maybe both!

Despite the fact that the rabbis chose not to include Macc. 1 and Macc. 2 in the Hebrew Bible, they did establish Hanukkah as a festival for all generations. Nathan Laufer writes, “…It reflected the more subtle rabbinic understanding of how God manifests the Divine Presence in history.” There were no overt miracles like splitting the Sea of Reeds, but there must have been implicit miracles to give the Jews an improbable victory. Laufer says, “The Jewish people became the public relations agents for the more hidden God, operating behind the scenes of history.” That’s why we say the full Hallel on all eight days, and add Al HaNissim in the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon, to reinforce the role of God in the Maccabees’ victory.

For two millennia, Hanukkah was a real but secondary festival. Late in the nineteenth century, increasing contact with the Christian and secular world along with the Jewish Enlightenment and modern Zionism led to disdain for the miracle of the oil, and renewed interest in the now-rehabilitated Maccabees as a celebration of Jewish political courage and military prowess. The anti-assimilation message of Hanukkah, and its proximity to Christmas was useful for strengthening Jewish identity. And it could be made attractive to children!

Thus, we have the great irony of Hanukkah. The change of focus to emphasize resistance to assimilation, defence of pluralism, and joy for children, made Hanukkah, in fact, more like the holidays of the very people we tried to differentiate ourselves from.

Jonathan Tobin writes, “Rather than pooh-pooh the emphasis on this minor festival it should be understood as a springboard for exactly the kind of productive assertions of Jewish pride and defense of rights that is needed more than ever.”

The challenge remains: how do we fit in and be different at the same time?

Postscript: When we set out to write an article about Hanukkah, we expected to have only enough material for a single piece. But our research has uncovered scores and scores of sources, enough for eight articles! Is that perhaps another instance of the Hanukkah miracle? Don’t worry. We’ll stop at three this year. Perhaps we’ll write others in future years.