If my understanding of a major historical event hasn’t changed since kindergarten, then it may be time for an upgrade. Our folk story version of the Chanuka story is beautiful and serves us well. It is a source of religious and cultural inspiration and entrenched in our tradition. However since fairly full records of the events in question are available, it is worth noting where they differ to a large degree from the folk version. I’ll note three major ones, along with where to find them in the text. From the events outlined in the records in the link above, we are able to glean important lessons about Chanukah and its connection to Jewish nationalism.
Judah Didn’t See Victory
We usually end the story with the rededication of the Temple under Judah the Maccabee. But that was long before the war was over. The Jews actually allowed the Greeks to return as long as their religious restrictions were lifted. Without Jewish sovereignty assured, the Greeks were able to betray the Jews. When oppression resumed, Judah and his troops returned to the hills and rebooted the rebellion. When facing Greek forces at the Battle of Elasa, many of his men fled before the fighting even started. The Greeks crushed most of the remaining Jewish forces, and killed Judah himself. His last surviving brothers, Simon and Jonathan, buried him and continued the guerrilla revolt. (1 Maccabees 9)
The Good Guys Lost
It is true that in the long run, the Jewish rebels held out against the Greek empire. But they were never able to decisively beat them on the battlefield. Like the Viet Cong who never defeated United States forces, the Jews lost the battles but won the war. After years of lost resources, the Greeks eventually just cut their losses and left. Basically, they abandoned the pro-Greek Hellenistic Jews and recognised the pious Maccabees as the official leaders of Judea. Judah’s brother Jonathan is given leadership of Judea and the High Priesthood. That’s what ended the war. (1 Maccabees 6&9)
Maccabees Received Greek Honors
As leader of a fierce fighting people, competing Greek leaders in the empire vied for Jonathan’s support. They would parade with him dressed in royal purple garments to show his importance. He leveraged their need to gain major political and economic advantages for Judea, which became a major regional power. Throughout, he never abandoned his adherence to a traditional Jewish lifestyle. The Judean Hellinist movement faded away into irrelevance. Other nations in the area, like Sparta and Rome, also dealt with the newly independent Jewish State. Eventually Jonathan was betrayed and murdered by the Greek Tryphon. By this time, attempting to defeat a Jewish army was seen as too difficult, and more sinister methods were preferred. (1 Maccabees 10-12)
There is no question that religion and culture were major in the conflict between the Seleucid Greeks and Maccabean Judeans. However, the national/political story is at least as interesting and relevant. As a people who have once again reestablished our independence in our homeland, these events are not only fascinating but also deeply relevant. We can debate what lessons should be brought to bear for a modern, independent state. But the model of our ancestors in balancing the Jewish character of their state while navigating the complex variables of ever changing geo-political chaos seems worth a peak to me.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote that, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” I think that’s probably true for everyone.
But especially for Jews.