Pressure to stamp out “hard-line Judaism” came from the Hellenists—the assimilated Jews. They resented the fact that their lives were made more difficult by a minority of their own people who refused to “give up their old ways.”
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(November 7, 2021 / JNS) Many of us know the themes of the Hanukkah story: pride in being Jewish; the few against the many; the defeat of our enemy; and the rededication of the Jewish Temple. Or perhaps some have only learned of the miracle of the oil, and how it burned continuously for eight days. While these are important themes, there is much more to the Hanukkah story that is at the heart of why we celebrate the holiday, and why it is so relevant today.
Looking at the story of Hanukkah, which happened in the 2nd century BCE, we know that many Jews of that era were assimilated. They wanted it all; they identified as Jews, but didn’t want to affiliate, and they were not studying Torah. Some were culturally Jewish—until that, too, was banned. They, like so many today, certainly would have declared themselves “Jews of a different or no religion.”
These Jews, known as Hellenists, emulated everything Greek culture had to offer. In order to be accepted in the halls of commerce and power, they thought that they had to dissociate themselves from their Jewish brothers. Core Jewish values of justice and morality got in the way of the self-preserving and decadent mores of the conquering Greek culture.
But when the non-Jewish ruling government started to clamp down on religious freedom, life became decidedly uncomfortable for their brethren—observant Jews. Forced to do away with Jewish rituals, including brit milah (circumcision), Jewish names, Shabbat, festivals and Torah study, those who hadn’t assimilated were forced to choose between embracing Greek culture or punishment by death.
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A minority within the religious community that chose to fight this oppression joined the Maccabees and became part of an uprising. They managed a miraculous military defeat, the part of the Hanukkah story that is well known.
The other piece of the story, however, is that the pressure to stamp out “hard-line Judaism” came from the Hellenists—the assimilated Jews. They resented the fact that their lives were made more difficult by a minority of their own people who refused to “give up their old ways.”