Nightfall on the 27th November 2013 marked the start of the eight day Jewish festival of Channukah (spellings vary) which to the modern Jew commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the divine miracle of one day’s lamp oil lasting for 8 days. However, the candles, the eating of doughnuts and other fried foods and the tale of a miracle is not the whole story.
Behind the spirituality of Channukah, a spirituality that some would say was over-emphasised by later Rabbis, lies the tale of a great battle for freedom. It was fought by a small number of people dwelling in a land squeezed between the territories of two great empires, and later captured and greatly oppressed by one of them.
The story is this: After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, there was a dispute about the succession and Alexander’s generals fought one another for supremacy, resulting in the Alexandrian Empire being split into three. Eventually, after over a century of fighting the Seleucid Empire based in Syria and Asia Minor, won the war and took possession of the Land of Israel. At its largest extent, the Seleucid Empire stretched from the Mediterranean to the lands of the Punjab, a massive amount of territory. The Seleucids initially agreed that the Jews of the Land of Israel could continue their religious and cultural practices, and have a considerable degree of autonomy.
Because of this autonomy, and allowances for the continuation of religious and cultural practices, many Jews of the Land of Israel started to wear Greek clothes, speak Greek, and attend Greek Gymnasia. They became assimilated, which is not a problem in itself, they were members of a Greek-based empire, who just happened to be Jewish.
This relatively benign state of affairs continued until a successor of Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV, started to oppress the Jews of the Land of Israel. He forbade the eating of kosher foods, forbade the teaching of the Torah and desecrated the Temple of the Jews by sacrificing non-kosher animals, such as pigs, on its altar. Antiochus backed up his oppression and desecration by ordering the massacre of Jews.
If Antiochus IV had been successful in wiping out the Jewish religion several millenia ago, then Judaism would have gone the way of other sacrificial cults of that particular historical period, we would be able to see the footprints of their buildings, but we would not be able to hear their voices. The fact that Judaism, as both a religion and an ethical path, survived the onslaught of Antiochus, is because some of the Jews of the Land of Israel, said ‘enough’ and fought back. The ‘enough’ that lit the spark of the rebellion of the Jews against the Seleucids, was the anger of one man whose disgust at what was being done to his country and his people boiled over. A period of growing anger amongst the Jews under Seleucid rule about the cruel treatment meted out to them exploded into rebellion because of the action of one man and his family. Because a person stood up it emboldened those who hated the Seleucids but who feared them also.
Sometimes all it takes is just one brave person to speak up, one brave person to act and the eventual result is a tyrant falls. In this story the brave man has a name, and that man’s name was Mattathias Maccabeus.
One day, a Greek enforcer of the King’s commands to worship Greek gods came to town with a portable altar to a Greek idol. Now idol worship is one of those basic forbidden things in Judaism, it’s right up there with ‘thou shalt not murder’ or ‘keeping the Sabbath’ or not worshipping other gods. The Enforcer tried to force Mattathias Maccabeus to sacrifice at the forbidden altar but he refused. At this point, from the crowd that had presumably gathered about this altercation between the Enforcer and Mattathias , stepped an extremely Hellenised Jew. A man who had thrown in his lot with the oppressors, probably for an easier or more lucrative life, or to avoid being socially stigmatised by the ruling elite. This heretical Hellenised Jew, had no qualms about making a sacrifice that was forbidden according to Judaism and approached the altar. At this point Mattathias leapt up, slew both the traitorous Hellenised Jew and the Greek Enforcer and the rebellion against the Seleucid Empire began. There were reprisals by the Greeks and counter attacks by the Jews, but the Jewish inhabitants of the Land of Israel carried the day.
The Jews re-captured Jerusalem and the Temple and set about cleansing it of the pig flesh and all traces of Greek idol worship. As part of the rededication of the Temple, the ceremonial lamps had to be lit but there was only enough lamp oil, that still bore the seal of the senior Jewish priest in charge before the desecration, for one day’s burning. Miraculously this one day’s oil lasted for 8 days and this is the basis for the modern celebration of Channukah.
However only to celebrate the miracle of the oil and ignore the military victory against oppression is to leave out one of the lessons that this festival can give, not only to Jews, but to the whole world.
That lesson is, if you do not point out a wrong, do not speak when a wrong is being done, then you will be oppressed like all the others. By caving in, by appeasing oppressors whoever or whatever they are, you encourage others to keep their heads down and let fear close their lips. The Jews would have been lost to story and song if they had not picked up weapons and fought back against the Seleucid Empire. Because they eschewed silence and acquiesence they survived.
If Mattathias Maccabeus had not taken out the traitor and the Enforcer, there would be no Jewish people today. By speaking up and by acting, the rebels secured their nation’s future as an independent state for a while, and also ensured that Jewish belief, literature and ethics were kept alive. A brave man stepped up and gave a positive example for his oppressed people to follow and the effects of that have lasted millenia and inspired other peoples as well as the Jews.
Now I’m not saying that people should start to call for violence, or for screaming mobs to roam the streets or burn down mosques, or hang politicans from lamp-posts with piano wire, but fighting against troublesome ideologies and resistance to oppression can take other forms. It can be in the form of refusing to be silenced by false accusations of ‘racism’ when criticising Islam, refusing to accept that the political Left have a monopoly on compassion, speaking up for moral certainty and not submitting to the sort of destructive moral relativism that robs people of the ability to praise what is good and condemn what is obviously evil.
Resistance and speaking out can also mean failing to comply with the more hectoring demands of a politically correct establishment. A good example of this is a recent case where parents at a school revolted over plans by the headteacher to punish those children who didn’t attend a compulsory indoctrination session on Islam, thinly disguised as an R.E. lesson. That action brought a victory. Isn’t fighting back like that so much better than being a cowed people, meekly letting their children be told that Islam is a benign ‘religion of peace’, instead of an ideology that is the biggest threat to freedom since the days of the great and terrible 20th century dictators?
No matter who we are, we can all learn from the Channukah story and the story of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids. We should learn that appeasement and kow-towing to oppressors leads to destruction, that we should speak up and speak out, and defy the threats of those who attempt to silence criticism. Tyrants whether they be men or monstrously inhuman ideologies must always be opposed.