THE BACKGROUND TO CHANUKAH

By Shlomoh Sherman
December 3, 2016 Euclid, OH


The Persians win at Salamis, 480 BCE

From the NY Times Best Seller list, WHAT IF?: The world's foremost military historians imagine what might have been. Essays edited by Robert Crowley, Berkley Books, New York

For a decade, the Persian Empire had been locked in battle with the cities of Greece to determine which culture would control the fate of nations. Persians detested the Greek idea of individualism. And as Persians fought against the Greeks and their idea of the free individual, the countries of the eastern Mediterranean cheered them on.

Historian Victor D Hanson points out that the Greek words for "freedom" and "citizen" did not exist in the vocabularies of the Mediterranean countries. Persia was an Oriental despotism whose Empire was united under one lord and sovereign.

At the final battle at Salamis, the Greeks achieved a devastating victory from which Persia would never quite recover. After the war ended, a Hellenistic imperial democratic culture arose and lasted for three and a half centuries. This culture possessed a superior technology and with it, ruled lands stretching from southern Italy to India. Although Greece itself was located on the Mediterranean, it was entirely anti-Mediterranean in spirit and values and opposed what it saw as the religiopolitical tyrannies of Western Asia.

In the lands now controlled by Hellenistic culture, the Greeks spread abroad their new ideas of constitutional government, private property, civilian control of military forces, free scientific inquiry, rationalism, and the separation between political and religious authority, the very ideas upon which was founded the United States of America and every other modern democracy.

The Persians were used to fighting in open waters. At the battle of Salamis, the Greeks, under the leadership of the Athenians, drew the much superior Persian fleet into a narrow isthmus with less than 50 feet of passageway and where the Greeks were able to destroy the entire Persian fleet. After Salamis, there ensued a land battle between Greeks and Persians but the Persian navy had already departed and Xerxes himself returned to Persia. The Greeks then poured en masse onto the battlefield and numerically overwhelmed their opponents. Without naval support, the remaining Persian infantry was destroyed.

Had the Greeks lost at Salamis, in place of what we know as Western science and philosophy, there would be divination, astrology, and religious bureaucracies governed without rational inquiry. The Western world, and Asia as well, would be ruled by men who like the Persian Emperor Xerxes had one of his generals cut in two, his body placed on one side of the road and his legs on the other and then had his army march between the pieces. What was the general's crime? He had dared petition Xerxes to have one of his sons exempted from military service.

Today we would live in a society where writers would be under death sentences if their writings displeased the power elite, where women would be veiled and secluded, free speech curtailed, and the thought-police in our living rooms and bedrooms.

The Greek mind eschewed the principle of national federalism and the idea of federal taxes. Their embrace of political independence and individuality was almost fanatical. Anyone proposing such as thing as the United Nations would find himself without friends in ancient Greece. Herodotus, the historian, said that Greeks were more motivated by their values, language, and religion than by any idea of a united federation.

After the defeat of Xerxes, no Asian power dared to invade the Greek homeland. And when the Greeks succeeded in overpowering the peoples of Asia, they habitually wrecked their adversaries' culture and planted military colonies abroad. Salamis established the principle that Greeks would advance and others recede in both and material and cultural sense.

The Romans took the idea of republican government from the Greeks. Facing the transplanted Asiatic people of Carthage, it was already predetermined that the Romans with their Western republican outlook would eventually triumph in the Punic Wars. The wonder is not that Hannibal ultimately lost but that he was able to fight so savagely for so long.

But unfettered democratic individualism also had its dangers. Plato, Aristotle, and most other Greek philosophers saw unregulated democracy and unregulated market capitalism degenerating into license whereby the self-absorbed Greek would lose interest in communal sacrifices and moral virtue. Already the Athenian demos had become mostly interested in crass material bounty.

Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the victory at Salamis saved not only Greece and Western civilization from Oriental despotism. It redefined the West as something more egalitarian, restless, and volatile that evolved into the society that we recognize today.

But beyond Victor D Hanson's informative essay lies the story of the unification of the Greeks under Alexander the Macedonian and its intensification and worship of Hellenism as the ultimate idolatry. As stated above, the initial reaction of the countries of Western Asia and northern Africa was one of antipathy to Greek free democracy but once it was forced on them, they embraced it wholeheartedly.

Hellenism led to a cultural and religious blending of the peoples of Western Asia and northern Africa. It transformed paganism into a tolerant philosophy where one's gods were no longer superior to those of others but were just ethnically different representations of each other under ethnically different names. It strengthened multicultural representations under an umbrella of unified Hellenistic sameness and equality.

The people who came under the domination of these Hellenistic ideas fell in love with them. Jews, however did not. Jews were happier under the reign of the Persians with whose cultural expression of state and religion were similar to their own. To Jews, the king was the king because God wants him to be the king. After all, Isaiah calls king Cyrus a messiah. And if his monarchy is ordained by Heaven, then why is there need for democratic individualism and unfettered philosophical thought? Why is there a need for a constitution? The king IS the constitution and the law by divine right. The world exists in the way that Heaven ordained. It does not need new ideas to somehow make it "better".

What can be better than the world as pictured in the TORAH? In Persia, the people acted like Persians. They did not expect or care that their subjugated peoples were not acting like Persians. But the Greeks wanted everyone to act like Greeks.

When Alexander the Macedonian died at a young age, he left an expansive empire of totally Hellenised culture without an heir. Therefore the imperial territories were divided among Alexander's generals. His general, Seleucus, who had been commander of the Greek cavalry, received Babylon and then continued to expand his dominions ruthlessly. In 312 BCE, he founded the Seleucid Empire. Eventually, he succeeded in adding all of Mesopotamia and Syria to his empire. The designation "Syria" is not to be mistaken for the disintegrating country now known as Syria. In the time of Seleucus, "Syria" was a geographical name which included what is now modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

In 175 BCE, Seleucus' descendant, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, came to the throne.

Under Alexander, Hellenization had been a movement that still allowed room for freedom of cultural variation because the ideal that the Greeks spread abroad was that of political and cultural independence and individuality. In fact, when Alexander asked his subjects to worship him as a god, Jews informed him that this was an impossible request since the Jews' TORAH forbids the worship of anyone except the Deity of Israel. Alexander graciously granted Jews the right to abstain from worshiping him. To show their gratitude, the KOHANIM promised to name their firstborn sons after him.

The Seleucids, and especially Antiochus, changed Alexander's love of Greek ideals and Hellenism into an idolatry that led to cultural totalitarianism. Antiochus' aggressive Hellenizing agenda gained him a substantial following among what we would now classify as "liberal" Jews who wished to erase the distinctions between themselves and their gentile neighbors in order to blend in with what they believed was new world order of universal peace and harmony; in a sense, a type of "messianic" dream minus a Jewish MESHIACH.

To a certain extent, Antiochus´ agenda worked. The super-Hellenized Jews submitted to the king´s will and helped implement the new totalitarian doctrine. Jerusalem became a little version of Syrian Antioch, complete with a gymnasium where the KOHANIM played Greek sports in the nude and ignored the precepts of the TORAH. Meanwhile, King Antiochus had access to the Temple treasury which helped fund a military campaign to conquer Egypt.

But Antiochus' aggressive Hellenizing, that is, de-Judaizing activities, provoked a full-scale armed rebellion in Judea which we now call the Maccabean Revolt, leading to a civil war between Jews staunchly loyal to the TORAH and those loyal to complete Hellenization. In this age of religious correctness what modern people fail to understand is that the story of CHANUKAH is more a story of Jew against Jew than Jew against Greek. To cite a long departed friend of mine, "This celebration is all about Orthodox Jews running around and stabbing secular ones."

I do not intend to cheapen the history of the holiday by that remark. Indeed, many Jews lost their lives by sacrificing themselves as martyrs rather than disobey the laws of the TORAH. The Book of Maccabees tells how religious Jews, with the aid of a Roman threat put to Antiochus to back off from forcing his subjects to accept Hellenization at the point of a sword, ultimately overcame the Greek defilement of Israel as symbolized by the miracle of the undefiled jar of oil known as the miracle of CHANUKAH.

One postscript. Although the rabbis in charge of the canonization of our TANACH chose to exclude the Book of Maccabees from our holy scriptures, and therefore there is no mention at all of the holiday found within the TANACH, the festival is mentioned in one of the Christian gospels, indicating that Jesus himself celebrated CHANUKAH.

And there is irony in that. Paul, the creator of Christianity, chose to found a religion which would lead to a complete dejudaization of its adherents, in an effort to make them like all other peoples. This was exactly the intent of Antiochus. Later Christians cited the martyrdom of the Jewish defenders of the TORAH as an ideal for their own martyrdom. But Christian martyrdom was in defense of obliterating the distinction between Jews and gentiles whereas the martyrs of CHANUKAH was for the opposite end.

And another postscript. The Roman Empire, in spite anything negative that one can say about it, and there is much, maintained the Greek, European, Western culture in West Asia and north Africa until the coming of the Muslims. The Arabian invasions led to the obliteration of that Western ideal, replacing it again with the despotic Oriental barbarism of ancient Persia which even affected the Jews of northern Africa and West Asia.

Jews like to say that there must be something redeeming in all adversity. The Romans destroyed the Jews' Land and drove many Jews out, westward to Europe where, in the end, Jews too accepted those early Greek ideals of freedom of thought and democracy thereby allowing a return to the Land of Israel and the establishment of a third commonwealth.

To all my friends, Jew and Christian, May we all have a happy holiday period after this stressful year.


CHANUKAH, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. CHANUKAH is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.
The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a special candelabrum, the MENORAH or HANUKIAH, one light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. An extra light called a SHAMASH, (Hebrew: "guard" or "servant") is also lit each night, and is given a distinct location, usually higher or lower than the others.

In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the Seleucid throne. Under his reign, the Temple in Jerusalem was looted, Jews were massacred, and Judaism was effectively outlawed. In 167 BCE, Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple.

Shortly thereafter, a rebellion against Antiochus broke out. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated. Thus the festival of CHANUKAH was instituted.

Although the story of Chanukah is not included in the Hebrew Bible, the holiday is mentioned in the Christian Gospel of John 10:22.


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