Chanukah: A Darker Tale

The real story behind the holiday should strengthen our resolve to reject extremism

by Jonathan Engel

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Jonathan Engel

The history of Chanukkah in the United States is one of deliberate misunderstanding. Most of us were introduced to the holiday as a children’s parable: the underdog Jews led by the brave Hasmonean Maccabee brothers overcome the tyrannical Assyrian Greeks to re-establish their independence and purify their Temple. God expresses his pleasure by performing the miracle in which a one-day supply of purified olive oil is transformed into the necessary eight-day supply. This version has the added benefit of justifying a healthy consumption of oily foods – latkes, sufganiyot – to commemorate the miracle. What could be better?

When you look a little deeper into the historical sources in the books of the Maccabees, however, you discover that the miracle of the oil never happened. The eightday celebration most likely began as a late observance of Sukkot in the year in which the Jews had been unable to celebrate it because the Syrians controlled Jerusalem. While Sukkot soon returned to its rightful place in the calendar (it is a harvest festival, after all), the solstice celebration remained and morphed into our modern festival of Chanukkah. The miraculous oil, by the way, is absent from the Mishnah, and does not make an appearance until the Gemarrah was codified some 700 years later.

The real story of Chanukkah is quite a bit different, and darker, than the one we learned as children. At the same time, it holds an important and highly relevant message for Jews today, one that warns against extremism and should strengthen our resolve to remain the vital Jewish center.


Chanukkah began as a holiday of dedication. The name comes from the Hebrew lechanech, to dedicate, which really meant purification. The leader of the Syrians, Antiochus III, meeting strong resistance from Jerusalem based zealots, not only forbade the practice of Judaism but also defiled Jewish holy sites with sadistic glee. He erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed pigs on the altar. His soldiers demanded that Jews consume pork, bow to idols, and vow allegiance to the pantheon of Greek gods. The horrific story of Hannah, who refused to eat pork and was forced to watch as her sons were dismembered, flayed alive and burned at the stake, may be a composite, but it is almost certainly drawn from actual events. Having experienced two years of desecration and defilement, the Jews’ first inclination after their military victory was not so much to celebrate as to clean the place up. Thus, the importance of the oil.

Explore the story a bit more deeply and more cracks emerge in the popular image. For one, the Hasmoneans turned out to be terrible civil governors, evolving quickly to despotism, nepotism and corruption after forcing out the Syrians. Their dynasty lasted a scant 100 years before civil war engulfed the country and the Roman army was dispatched to restore order. The Hasmoneans launched several wars against their neighbors in an effort to expand the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom, and periodically turned to forced conversions reminiscent of the atrocities which had precipitated their original revolt.

More important is the suggestion of several contemporary scholars that the Chanukkah story is a misrepresentation of what was, in fact, a Jewish civil war. A split in the Israelite community between Hellenized and Hebraicized Jews had created a power struggle into which Antiochus was unwittingly drawn. The Seleucid dynasty (over which Antiochus ruled) permitted free worship in its conquered regions, so its anti-Jewish policies in Israel only make sense when seen as part of a broader effort to restore political stability to the region. In this view, the Maccabees were not a ragtag group of freedom fighters but rather regional leaders fighting for the restoration of clerical Judaism. The Pharissee/ Saducee split, in whose shadow Jesus preached, was really the projection of this tension two centuries later. We may demonize the Assyrian Greeks for their violence and crudeness, but they only were responding to calls for help from their Hellenized Judaic brethren.

What are we to make of this portrait of some of our favorite heroes? First, we might ask why we care at all. This theologically trivial holiday (it carries none of the restrictions of Shabbat or other holidays) has gained importance as part of a secularizing impulse to create a Jewish Christmas. But given that Chanukkah has such a central place in our experience, we ought to make some effort to understand its deeper lessons.

The divide between Hellenists and Judaists has been replicated many times over the course of history, as some Jews have aggressively sought to assimilate. The struggle to reconcile Jewish practice with an American lifestyle, is dividing our community. Traditional Shabbat and holiday observance, keeping kosher, abiding by the laws of family purity, or even raising our children as Jews fall victim to the desire to participate in the American experience, forcing both the Conservative and Reform rabbinates to accept ever more lax standards of community behavior. At the same time, rabbinical Orthodoxy is growing in strength, raising its halakhic standards to ever more rigid positions. The middle is falling out.

How should we respond? In ancient Israel, a political core was re-established only through civil war, revolt, occupation, and despotism. Indeed, the end came with Roman occupation and 2,000 years of diaspora. In North America, we don’t fear armed conflict between disparate branches of the Jewish people, but we might fear a time when our assimilating and traditionalist sects can no longer accommodate each other’s beliefs.

This Chanukkah, let us sing and party and celebrate the miracle, however we understand it. But let us also make an effort to understand its underlying, darker context. When parts of the Jewish community drift too far from the center, and can no longer accommodate each other, we invite tragedy. If we are to preserve a vital Jewish center, we can afford to be neither Hellenists nor Maccabees.

Jonathan Engel is professor of Public Affairs at Baruch College, CUNY. He is the past president of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey.