Everyone is familiar with the Hanukkah traditions of eating fried foods and giving presents, but there is a Hanukkah tradition nearly as strong among American Jews of bashing Hanukkah. While the celebration of Hanukkah is as lighthearted as Jewish ritual gets, the Hanukkah story makes many people uncomfortable. It is one of uncompromising religious zealotry, unapologetic nationalism, and a revolt centered around not only purification of the Second Temple but purification of Judaism by driving assimilated 2nd century BCE Jews out of the fold. Hanukkah is, on its face, a celebration of violence and religious fundamentalism, two things that most American Jews innately reject, and this inevitably leads to an annual round of anguished soul-searching about what exactly we are celebrating.
Over the weekend, Michael David Lukas contributed to the Hanukkah-skepticism genre in the New York Times in pointing out the hypocrisy of Hanukkah being the Jewish holiday most important to and celebrated by assimilated Jews despite it commemorating a war against assimilation. As Lukas writes, “the story of Hanukkah is based on a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, the latter being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods…everyone agrees that the Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews. So Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.” Lukas, a self-identified assimilated Jew, acknowledges the discomfort he has celebrating Hanukkah in light of this history but concludes that he is willing to continue embracing the anti-assimilation holiday if the alternative is getting a Christmas tree.
Hanukkah does indeed celebrate a group of religious fundamentalists who were infuriated by the widespread assimilation in Judean society and the support among the Jewish upper classes for the ruling Seleucids’ forced assimilation policies. It is true that the Maccabees wanted to impose their view of proper religious practice on their coreligionists, and that their vehicle for doing so was war and violence. If you end the Hanukkah story at the capture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, then thinking of Hanukkah as the anti-assimilation holiday makes a lot of sense. But Lukas stopped too early. Despite the general accuracy of his account of the Hanukkah story, it is actually a lot more complicated once you keep on going and see what happened once the fundamentalists had won.
In the context of second century Palestine, assimilation could mean either actually becoming Greek – in other words, rejecting a Jewish identity entirely – or acting Greek while maintaining a Jewish cultural and religious identity. What the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans (the monarchical dynasty established by the Maccabees after their victory) were warring against was not the second type of assimilation, but the first. Once in power, the Hasmonean kings allowed for, and even embraced, the type of cultural assimilation that allowed Jews to maintain their Jewish identity while adopting many of the customs and mores of the wider eastern Mediterranean world. The Maccabee leaders themselves knew and spoke Greek, wrote documents in Greek, and later minted local coins (which was a distinctly Greek custom that earlier Judean kings had not done).
But where the tolerance for assimilation and a non-puritanical Judaism really manifested itself was in the Hasmonean effort to expand the population of Jews. One of the most controversial aspects of Hanukkah today is that the Hasmoneans expanded the boundaries of their kingdom and subjected the people they conquered to a choice of conversion or expulsion. This is indeed unsavory by today’s standards, but what gets lost in the understandable condemnation of forced conversions is that the Hasmoneans were trying to grow the number of Jews, but were not trying to police the Judaism they practiced. The conquered Samaritans, Idumeans, and Galileans had to pledge loyalty to the Temple in Jerusalem and cease any pagan idol worship, but they retained many of their local religious customs and their daily religious life remained different from what took place in Judea. In other words, what was important was that they considered themselves to be Jews and demonstrated their acceptance of a couple of core concepts, and not that they conformed their religious practice to the strict dictates of normative Jewish orthodoxy. Converting conquered peoples was about expanding Jewish identity and the population of Jews rather than about imposing a vision of religious zealotry and cracking down on assimilation. The new Jews were considered wholly Jewish by the old guard, and some of the non-Jewish customs that the conquered groups maintained – such as burying the dead in cave burial niches – even ended up spreading throughout the Jewish community.
Looked at this way, Hanukkah is actually not a story about a war on assimilation. It is a story about acceptance of assimilation as a way to maintain Jewish identity. Lukas’s ambivalence about celebrating Hanukkah is because he views the Maccabees’ battle as one directed at Jews like him. As he observes, “what am I if not a Hellenized Jew? I eat pork every so often. Before having children, my wife and I agonized over the question of circumcision. And while I’ve never offered burned sacrifices to Zeus, I do go to yoga occasionally. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me.” I’m actually not so sure. Lukas’s agonized internal debate is precisely because he cares about his Jewish identity and preserving that identity in his children. He is celebrating Hanukkah because he does not want to give in to the impulses his kids have to celebrate Christmas. In the language of the Hasmonean era, he wants to act Greek rather than become Greek. But it was the desire of Jews to become Greek that the Maccabees were combating, and part of their strategy for doing so was to create leeway for assimilated Jews to act Greek. Lukas is in some ways a triumph of the Hanukkah story rather than a cautionary tale.
American Jews observe rising intermarriage rates and alarming numbers of Jews who identify as having no religion, and have frenzied debates about how to preserve the American Jewish community. I don’t know that there is a definitive right answer, but it is worth reflecting during this Hanukkah season that the Maccabees – seen as the ultimate anti-assimilation warriors – understood that not all assimilation is created equal, and that some kinds of assimilation can even lead to a larger, stronger, and more vibrant Jewish community. If you are conflicted about celebrating Hanukkah because of the holiday’s underlying themes, remember that amidst the war, nationalism, and uncompromising religion, there is also a surprising and healthy dose of Jewish pluralism and a message that Jewish identity is more important than uniform Jewish practice.