Chanukah seems to be more popular than ever. Thanks to Adam Sandler, Orrin Hatch, and the American culture of consumerism and marketing, the festival of lights has secured a more prominent place in popular culture than other Jewish holidays. And I’m sure this popularity is about more than just its proximity to another better known holiday or its eight days of presents.
Chanukah’s popularity also has a lot to do with the universal appeal of its storyline. This holiday recalls a classic underdog story about a scrappy, smaller protagonist that defeats the larger, dominant, cruel antagonist. Who wouldn’t be impressed by the bravery of the weak and few as they make a stand against the mighty and numerous? It’s a story with the same appeal of the American Revolutionary War or the movie “Rudy.”
And yet this seems surprising when you consider the fact that Chanukah celebrates a victory whose gains ultimately were lost a mere 200 years later with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. That small band of freedom fighters may have won a battle, but they eventually lost the war. If Chanukah is a commemoration of a political victory of freedom over oppression, then its meaning should be lost in the ashes of the Second Temple. Why then do we continue to celebrate Chanukah?
Clearly there is an enduring, spiritual significance to this miraculous victory. The political and religious freedoms that were temporarily regained by the Chashmonaim have monumental repercussions and to understand this we must consider one more curious fact about the story. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z”l notes that the Talmud refers to the enemy as “the Greeks” when in actuality it wasn’t really them. In reality, the oppressors of the Jewish people were Hellenized Syrians who were assimilated into the Greek culture and language. Why then do we ascribe the persecutions to the Greeks? The answer is that the Greek culture of that time was responsible for spreading intolerance and religious persecution. Their mission was to conquer the entire world and assimilate everyone into their culture. Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world not only for the sake of power, but to bring the Greek culture to every barbarian tribe or nation. All peoples were to recognize one universal message. This mission is no different than later examples in history when people would pursue utopian societies that only grew into tyrannical regimes. In fact, Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, identifies the root of this attitude with the Greek philosopher Plato. As Rabbi Sacks explains in his book, “The Dignity of Difference,” Plato held that truth can only be found in universal ideals.
“What is true is true for everyone at all times, and so the more universal a culture is, the closer to truth it comes.”
This attitude dominated Western thinking for millennia and laid the groundwork for Syrian Greeks of the Chanukah story and much later societies, such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
In the face of such tyranny stood the Chashmonaim, who bore the spiritual tradition that God is the only universal truth and basic divine morality is the only universal order. And this divine morality teaches that every person is unique and possesses dignity. The Torah is primarily concerned with the plight of those who are different. While there is only one commandment to love one’s neighbor, there are at least 36 places in the Torah where we are commanded to ensure the well-being of the stranger. Divine morality recognizes the innate dignity of every person and every society that upholds this concept.
This is why, Rabbi Sacks explains, God would choose one family (who would become a nation) to be separate from the rest of the world in order to carry this message. The Jewish people are the living example of the fact that God created a world with diversity and God will be represented by that very people who is different, the Jewish people. The victory over the Syrian Greeks was a victory for tolerating diversity and appreciating diversity. The Syrian Greeks sought to undermine our uniqueness by destroying the one thing that keeps us unique – our fidelity to the Torah. They knew that their universal world order would only succeed if they got rid of the very paradigm of divinely created diversity – the Jewish people.
While the political victory of the Chashmonaim was short-lived, the spiritual victory endures today. The cultivation of Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah is an active perpetuation of the victory of the Chashmonaim. While the holiday of Chanukah itself has been assimilated into American culture, we, the Jewish people, carry the light of its true message – that each person is deserving of dignity and we can only perpetuate that lesson as long as we ourselves remain unique.