Can you imagine the blissful orgy of intellectualism that would have accompanied the meeting – for the first time – of the most philosophical peoples the world had ever known, namely, the Jews and the Greeks? Talmudic study meets the schools of Aristotle and Socrates? Kabbalah meets Pythagoras and Euclid? The synthesis of these two cultures should at least have catalyzed a few millennia of wildly inventive literature, mathematics and science.
That's not how it turned out, though. Instead of welcoming the Greeks, as almost all others under Hellenic occupation were pleased to do, the Jews were violently defiant. Why?
Life was pretty good under the Greeks. First of all, unlike, say, the Egyptians or Babylonians, they had no initial interest whatsoever in killing or enslaving the Jews. They brought with them empowering notions of democracy, great food, a fascinatingly philosophical culture, a highly organized economy, beautiful art and long, lazy days at the gymnasium. What's not to love?
It is generally believed that the Jews refused to assimilate, and caused so many problems for the Greeks (and for other Jews with Hellenist tendencies), for a nebulous host of reasons having to do with Greek polytheism. This loose rationale is certainly correct, but to accept it as the only answer is to ignore the Jews' long history of living peaceably, and minding their own spiritual business, alongside others with vastly different religious beliefs.
The "polytheism" argument has also enabled many generations of students and scholars to conveniently forget about two concrete elements of Greek life that would have been utterly appalling to ancient Jews: institutionalized pederasty and infanticide.
Homosexuality, and in particular, homosexual relations between men and boys, was not only condoned in ancient Greece, it was encouraged. The Greeks felt as if sex between man and boy, or "teacher" and "student," was a particularly noble expression of love. To the Jews, of course, it would have been unspeakably disgusting, disturbing and sinful.
The only thing that could possibly have bothered the family-minded, life-loving Jews more than institutionalized homosexuality and pedophilia also happened to be a critical part of Greek culture: infanticide. The Greeks were a superstitious people who treasured physical beauty – perfection of form – above all. They envisioned their gods as humans and believed that gods and men interacted. They believed that ugly babies were accursed. They believed that unwanted babies, babies with deformities, and often female babies, deserved to die.
The method employed by the Greeks in killing their babies was called exposure. The baby was simply taken away and left in a field, or on a rock, to starve to death, or die of dehydration, or, more often than not, to be eaten alive by dogs or other animals. The practice was not marginal, it was completely normal, and it was, in fact, encouraged. The Greeks believed in beauty, in perfection, in convenience and function, in the "greater good" of society. The Greeks believed: "Every child a wanted child."
Let us then see the Jewish revolts, and by extension the Hanukkah story, as something more than a high-minded battle in the name of a singular God. To be sure, Jewish heroes like the Maccabees, like Hannah and her sons, were martyrs. They died with the Shema – Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One – on their tongues and in their souls. At the same time, though it may be disturbing to us, we must not forget that there were very practical catalysts for the Jews' utter rejection of Greek culture. If a pack of baby-killing homosexual pedophiles moved in next to your family, would you be so concerned about their religious proclivities or the statuary on their front lawn? Of course not. You'd round up some friends and kick their asses out of town. And that is exactly what the Maccabees did when they reclaimed Jerusalem.
At the time of the cleansing and rededication of the Temple, the Jews would have made the re-lighting of the seven-branched menorah – the trans-historical symbol of the light of God's word – a top priority. Only a small cask of sealed, purified oil could be found, however: enough to keep the menorah lit for a day. It would take an entire week to prepare, bless and purify any additional oil. Miraculously, the small quantity of oil burned for eight days. This is the core event which is celebrated at Hanukkah with the lighting of the "Hanukkiah," the special nine-branched menorah. But Hanukkah is as much about the light as about the decision to kindle the flame.
Those men in the Temple might have known that the Greeks would return, that their Temple, this, the Second Temple, a shadow of their First, would ultimately be destroyed again. They might have known they would lose Jerusalem again; they might have known that once again the gutters would be filled with their blood. They fought anyway. They cleansed and purified the Temple anyway. They knew there was only enough oil for a days' burn. They lit the menorah anyway. They knew that the whole world – all of Alexander's empire – shared certain beliefs about sex and life, beliefs which came wrapped in an aesthetically magnificent and tantalizingly logical cultural package. They refused to assimilate. They chose impossible odds, they chose God's word. They chose to fight. They chose to kindle the flame, and they expected a miracle.
Making the choice to believe anyway, to fight anyway, to kindle the flame of God's word anyway is the story of Hanukkah. It is the story of Abraham's devotion, it is the story of Sarah's unlikely pregnancy, it is the story of Isaac. It is the story of David, of ancient and modern Israel, indeed, philosophically, religiously and militarily, it is the story of the Jews.
In Israel, they say, if you do not believe in miracles, you are not a realist. As if to say, "I am with you, I am always with you when you fight for me," God creates miracles. His soldiers are used to being outnumbered and outgunned, but they expect miracles. There is nothing lofty or complicated about the process. Miracles simply happen when we fight evil, and it is perfectly pragmatic to expect them. No people on Earth, after all, have endured as many exiles, as many enslavements, as many murders as the Jews, but they survive, and thrive, contributing to society, to science, to architecture and chemistry and mathematics and physics and art and medicine in ever more astonishing ways.
The Egyptians are gone. The Philistines, Assyrians and Babylonians are gone. The Greeks and Persians are gone. The Romans, the Crusaders, the Spanish Empire, the Nazis, the Soviets, all gone. Hamas is still around. For now.
And what of the Temple? Whose shrine now sits where the Temple once stood?
Never mind the statuary. Never mind the odds. Never mind what the rest of the world, the U.N., the media or Hollywood seem to think. Never mind the lofty intellectuals. God tells us what is right and what is wrong.
This Hanukkah, will you rededicate yourself to the light of His word?
You may expect miracles.
Will you kindle His flame?
Will you fight?
Editor's note: For more historical information about Hanukkah, read Raff's "What you need to know about Hanukkah."
Franklin Raff lives in Mount Vernon, Va., and Jerusalem, Israel, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.