On Hanukkah, which begins tonight, Jews celebrate their victory over the Seleucid Empire, which attempted to entrench the Hellenistic culture and belief system among the Jews in the land of Israel. This is the going narrative. However, this epos is not quite what happened.
Although everyone knows that the Maccabean Revolt, whose victory we celebrate on Hanukkah, was a civil war between the Hasmonean family and their adherents against Hellenistic Jews, we conveniently tell ourselves that we fought against the Greeks (the Seleucid Empire practiced and promoted the Greek culture of Hellenism). The Seleucids joined the war on the side of the Hellenists only toward the end, but for much of the war, it was Jews against Jews.
The war among the Jews stands for much more than a struggle for power; it is a clash of ideals, of paradigms, of perceptions, of reality. Judah Maccabee, the third son in the Hasmonean family, was the commander of the rebels against the Hellenists, but his whole family participated in key positions. The Hasmoneans were staunch believers in the ancient Jewish tenet of solidarity and mutual responsibility being the foundation of the nation. They believed that it was the role of the Jews to practice ”Love your neighbor as yourself” and be ”a light unto nations” by setting an example of unity above differences. Contrary to that, the Hellenists championed the Greek culture of worship of the self. The Hellenists put the ego at the center; the Hasmoneans put serving the community at the center of their wishes.
The struggle was not an internal Jewish squabble, but a fight over the vocation of the Jewish people — to save the world through its example. If the Jews relinquish their commitment to unity, then what is the purpose of the existence of Judaism altogether? Worse yet, if there are no Jews to unite and set an example, how will the world find unity?
The Hasmoneans believed wholeheartedly in the prophecy of Isaiah 42:6, ”And I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light unto nations,” and the words of King Solomon (Prov. 10:12), ”Hate stirs strife, and love will cover all crimes.” They saw it as their vocation to illustrate how love can be more important to people than hate, how they can rise above it in unity and peace.
The Hellenists, who tried to ingrain the opposite approach, that the ego is king and we should serve ourselves, were therefore not only their worst enemies, but as they saw it, the enemies of humanity. The Hasmoneans did not expect the Seleucids to adopt their faith and principles, but also they would not allow their culture to be overrun by the Greek culture, since then there would be no one to perpetuate the mission that the Jews were given at the foot of Mt. Sinai, to unite ”as one man with one heart” and thereby be ”a light unto nations.”
The Hasmoneans won the war and reinstalled their culture, and to this day, we celebrate their victory. However, their victory was short-lived. Hellenism, they learned, was not an external enemy, but a wily serpent lurking within. Soon after their victory, they, too, began to lose their moral standing and their sons became increasingly corrupt.
In the end, the Hellenistic culture took over the entire land of Israel as the Romans, whose culture derived from the Greeks, conquered the land and exiled the Jews for two millennia. In fact, even today, although Jews are purportedly the sovereign in Israel once more, the culture of the land is still Hellenism, and there is no trace of mutual responsibility or solidarity. If the people of Israel remain this way, they will lose the land once more since there is no need for them if not for the purpose of the creation: to be a light of unity to the nations.
Israel does not need the patronage of any country. Its strength lies not in its army or economy, but in its unity. If it lacks unity, the backing of powers will sustain it only for so long. But if the people unite, they will not need anyone’s protection since they will have no enemies.
Today, no commodity is more required than unity, yet no commodity is more scarce. Its sole producers are the people of Israel, and they are busy fighting among themselves both in Israel and around the world. As the world looks desperately for solutions to its escalating conflicts, it will turn its eyes to the Jews and ask, ”Why are you making us fight?”
Then, if the Jews do not remember their covenant, to be a light unto nations, they will be crushed once more. But if they do unite, they will shine the light of unity throughout the world, and all of humanity will celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, the joy of solidarity, over the Greeks, the reign of egoism.