The Civil War Best Forgotten
“‘What was mankind’s greatest invention?’ I would argue it is history itself. History isn’t fact. Its narrative, one carefully curated and shaped.” — Gaal Dornick, Season 1, Episode 9 ‘ Foundation’ on Apple TV+
Alan King, a 20th century comedian and fellow Great Neck dad, half-jokingly quipped “A summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!””
It is interesting to consider who the “they tried to kill us” were when it comes to the story of Chanukah. Who is the ancient enemy that brought us Latkes and Sufganiyot?
We grow up hearing stories about the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus the Greek. However, what we often leave out is that there was a group of Hellenized Jews who were aligned with the Seleucids (who we call Greeks) and their goal of outlawing traditional Jewish practices in the Second Temple.
In fact, many modern scholars believe that Antiochus was actually intervening in an already existing civil war between Jews. Modern scholarship tends to think of this as a war between traditional and reformist parties in the Jewish camp.*
So why don’t we talk about the infighting? Why have we chosen to forget this civil war in our history?
I think it is an indication of Jewish communal responsibility. A story of inclusion.
We are reminding ourselves that if someone feels that they need to abandon their Jewish identity, it is because we failed them.
Our history isn’t saying that a group of Jews sided with the wrong team and we defeated them collectively. Rather, our history is saying there was some infighting but that it was not on them, that is was on us. We failed our brothers and sisters who felt compelled to look for community elsewhere because they didn’t feel welcomed or included.
The Rabbis ask until what time can we light our Menorah? They conclude, until the market closes. Traditionally, our audience for the Menorah is everyone else out there. The Menorah is there to let others know that there is light in our homes. That we are proud of who we are and that we welcome you to ask questions.
But I would like to suggest that the light of the Menorah is also for those in our homes. As the light of the candles reflect off of our windows and back into our homes we are reminding ourselves that, though we sometimes feel that our internal strife is too great to bare, when someone else looks in all they see is one light.
Our version of the Chanukah story, and its emphasis on light of the Menorah, tells us that we aren’t focused on the enemy but on ourselves and our return to what matters most to us. To paraphrase Rabbi Joesph Soloveitchik, the Chanukah victory is a spiritual one not a political one.
Feel confident lighting your Menorah. Show the world. But also remember to look in and be sure that those in your home feel inspired to carry on the light.
*Let us quickly retell the story we all know so well: There were a few different groups of Jews living in or near Jerusalem in the 2nd Century BCE. Antiochus the IV, a Hellenistic Seleucid King, came to power at the same time that some Jews were embracing Hellenistic culture/religious tendencies. The Hellenistic Jews and ‘traditional’ Jews clashed, particularly over how to use the Temple. Antiochus either stepped in to support the Hellenistic Jews or concurrently outlawed traditional Jewish practices and defiled the Second Temple. Ultimately the Maccabean Jews (traditional) led a revolt against the Seleucids and rededicated their Temple. There may or may not have been a miracle involving oil, but all agree that there was an 8 day festival that followed this great victory.