As Jews around the world celebrate Chanukkah, we remember that the Seleucid Greeks sought to eradicate the Jewish religion from the face of the earth. Unlike Haman’s plot to commit genocide in Persia which Jews memorialize around the world during Purim, the Seleucid Greeks did not have a problem with Jews existing; they merely wanted them to Hellenize and abandon their heritage. For this reason, the Seleucids outlawed Shabbat observance, the commemoration of Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of Jewish holidays, keeping kosher, the studying of Torah, and the practice of circumcision, but did not issue a death warrant for the existence of the entire Jewish people.
Instead, the Seleucids actively promoted the Hellenization of Israel. They selected a Hellenized Jew to be the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, who implemented swine sacrifices to Zeus and promoted the worship of a wide array of Greek gods in the area instead of Hashem. Indeed, there was a powerful group of Jews in Israel at that period of time, which sent their children to the gymnasium and didn’t circumcise them, as many Greek sports were done naked. When the Maccabees decided to rise up against the Seleucids, they had to fight against not only their imperial oppressors but also Jews who had Hellenized and accepted the Greek way of life.
The story of Chanukkah is therefore not just a struggle where the Jewish people fought for their religious freedom and national liberation against a mighty empire. It is also the story about the preservation of the Jewish heritage and religion against enormous odds. For the first time in history, the Seleucid Greeks told Jews that their religion did not have a right to exist, an idea which was considered anathema in an ancient world where everyone respected and worshipped the gods of the others.
Unfortunately, the Seleucid Greeks would not be the first nation to compel the Jews to give up the religion of their ancestors. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain told the Jews of their country that they could either die, convert to Christianity or leave. Other tyrants throughout history, such as the Almohads in North Africa, the Safavids in Persia, the Frankish kingdoms of the sixth century, the Byzantines, the Portuguese, and the Crusaders implemented the forceful conversion of Jews.
Throughout these difficult periods in history, while the ancestors of many Jews were lost following the forced conversations, either by being slaughtered or giving into the edicts, others fled to lands where they could worship freely or held unto the religion of their heritage in secret and later on, would return to Judaism in full force. These secret Jews are known in Hebrew as Anusim, a phrase that means Jews that were compelled to leave the religion of their ancestors.
After suffering thousands of years of persecution, holding onto and preserving the Jewish heritage and religion in the face of enormous persecution should be the main message of Chanukkah. Judaism is a faith that every Jew should be proud of. It truly is a light onto the nations. It is the first monotheistic religion, an ancient faith that respects justice, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, animal rights, and women’s rights. Many of Judaism’s hidden secrets have predicted future historical events, been backed up scientifically and promotes virtues that are relevant for all times.
It teaches Jews to treat strangers with respect for Jews were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah preaches that men should take care of and be stewards of the earth, permitting animals to rest on Shabbat and to allow the land to rest during sabbatical years. Before any other text gave women the right to inherit, Moses granted women these rights and the Torah itself provides young Jewish girls with numerous female prophets as role models, while other religions like Islam do not have a single female prophet. The Hirsch commentary on the Torah clarifies: “G-d built one side of man into woman, so that the single human being became two, thereby demonstrating irrefutably the equality between man and woman.”
Furthermore, Judaism always respected a plurality of opinions in rabbinical discourse and the representative bodies of the Jewish people behaved in a democratic fashion from the Second Temple period onwards. “The biblical vision, regularly reaffirmed in the Jewish political tradition, is that the nations and peoples of the world have a right to exist and be autonomous under G-d,” Daniel Elazar wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “In this sense, Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, is not ecumenical. It does not seek a single world state, an ecumene, in which all national and religious differences are obliterated. Quite to the contrary, the Jewish vision of the messianic world order is one in which all nations recognize the sovereignty of G-d but retain their separate national and even religious characteristics.”
However, despite these enormous gifts that Judaism has to offer the world, too many Jews don’t value the preservation of the Jewish heritage and religion. Instead, they prefer to rapidly assimilate into foreign cultures and societies. 50% of American Jews intermarry today, for example. But even these people do have hope. As is written in The Days of Chanukkah in Jewish Law and the Hagaddah, “If the great men of Israel from previous generations saw our generation, they would find a sorrowful situation today where most of the Jews are influenced by foreign cultures that don’t belong to them, that don’t know the Shema Israel and what is Shabbat, how big would be their sorrow!”
“But still, the Lord will not abandon his people and will not leave his land,” it continues. “Even in a situation when all of the oils turn to be impure, which means the ideas got confused, and the pure souls of the Israeli people turned to be unclean, even then, it is possible to find a pure bottle of oil which is the Jewish point which exists in the heart of every Jew deep inside. That point never turns off and never turns impure forever. But just if we would have the intelligence to turn it on and to light it, then she will rise up and will be turned on and will be like an eternal candle and a holy flame.”
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com.