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The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story

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''The Death of Elazar'' by Gustave Dore
"The Death of Elazar" by Gustave Dore

We all know the story of Chanukah, and can at once recount the events that took place: in the beginning of the second century BCE, the Greek-Syrians enforced their control over the Land of Israel, subjugating all of the inhabitants to its laws; they decreed that the Jews may not fulfill many of the mitzvot, causing indescribable hardship to the lives of the Jews. Unable to bear the abuse, the oppressed Jews gathered around the valiant family of Mattisyahu, and, against all odds, just ten years after the conquerors had imposed their decrees they miraculously defeated the mighty Greek army and restored the Holy Temple to its former glory.

The question is not "Why the Jews?" but "Why?" It's obvious that the Greeks tried to suppress our religion, but why would they try to do that? Sometimes we get so caught up in the rhetoric--they all hate us, they're all trying to kill us, all of them are just plain anti-Semites--that it appears very natural to us that everybody around should want to persecute us. But if we examine the historical scene, we will see that it was not that simple and straightforward. The question that should be asked is not "Why the Jews?" but "Why?"

Under the same ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greeks occupied many lands. In none of them, however, is there any evidence of those lands' religions being suppressed. In Babylon, for example, which was conquered in the same period as Jerusalem, the Greek infrastructure was established, complete with theaters and stadiums, to enable the conquerors to pursue their lifestyle. Although they introduced their hedonistic culture, they did not attempt to disturb the local Babylonian religion and beliefs. The sacred writings of the natives were not burned or pillaged; instead, they were preserved and later transcribed on durable material.

There was nothing unusual about this, because pagan societies generally had respect for other religions. Even in other places in Israel, such as Shechem, which was home to the Samaritans (Shomronim) and their variation of the Jewish monotheistic faith, religious practice was not disturbed. When the Romans conquered the region at the end of the first century CE, they actually restored many of the religious symbols.

Throughout history, many devout groups were completely intolerant of others' beliefs. Possibly the most notorious example, the Spanish Inquisition, begun at the end of the fifteenth century, reminds us of the torture and affliction men are capable of tormenting each other with, for the sin of not complying to certain beliefs. However, unlike later religious movements--indeed, they persist to this very day--which did not allow other faiths to flourish, because they felt in sole possession of the Truth and considered themselves required to convert everyone else, ancient pagans had no such mission. Since they followed a polytheistic belief, which accepts more than one supernal being and divine force, they were able to appreciate the local traditions and saw no necessity to upset them.

Pagan societies generally had respect for other religions Contrary to their previous demeanor, in Jerusalem the Greeks set about enforcing a list of repressing decrees. Circumcision, the imprint of G‑d's command on a man's flesh, was outlawed. Observance of the Shabbat was forbidden; being to the Jews a symbol of the tranquility and quiet which they deserved and hoped to initiate in their lives, the day that had always separated them from their neighbors was now banned. Their traditional disgust for products of the pig was disregarded, and they were coerced into sacrificing and then eating the pork. Those who, in spite of the edicts, had defied the king's wishes and instructed others about the lessons of their tradition were burned at the stake, wrapped in the parchment of the scrolls they had been caught teaching.

Historians note that this was the sole occurrence in the career of Antiochus that a people's religious privileges were revoked. Some even remark that his actions were entirely without precedent: no tyrant had ever claimed the authority to pass judgment over what is suitable for another person's soul and spiritual wellbeing. What did the Greeks experience that convinced them of the urgent need to completely destroy the Jewish religion? Why did Jewish practices alarm them so much?

Baffled by these events, scholars continue to search for suitable clarifications. One common explanation has pointed to the rivalry of the Jewish factions within the city. There were many people who, enthralled by the appealing lifestyle of the Greeks, sought to discard their Jewishness and embrace the new customs: they were the Hellenists, in whose eyes all of the traditional practices were impractically archaic. To perform circumcision or refrain from eating pork could only further the Jewish particularity and distinctiveness, which was what the Hellenists were fleeing from. For them, the solution was to proclaim all of the Jewish customs unbinding and irrelevant.

At the other extreme were a group of people led by the Maccabees, whose only concern was defending their heritage. Their indignation was aroused by the apostate Jews more than by the Greeks. If the heathens did not want to recognize the truth of the Jewish faith, that was their own concern. However, when Jews opposed the practices, it was a horrific incident. Irked by the blatant dismissal of Jewish values, they set out to battle those renegade Jews. The result was a civil war.

Caught in a violent clash, the Hellenist camp petitioned Antiochus for help. The king, pleased with their effort to join his culture, agreed to implement the unparalleled measures which they suggested. It was not Antiochus who had devised the cruel decrees; it was the Hellenist Jews. Unfortunately, the story seems familiar: sometimes the Jews' worst enemies are their fellow Jews.

Some scholars have a different approach. Instead of blaming the warring sects among the Jews, they focus on the fierce rebellion that raged throughout the area. The Greeks were witness to a frustrating phenomenon: no matter how fiercely they subdued the small uprisings, the dogged insurgents would continue their annoying skirmishes. Although the Greeks faced resistance wherever they went, they had become adept at taming those countries' natives by merging their culture with local customs. In Jerusalem, however, they were not successful in enlightening the residents; something inherently obstinate about their religious adherence forced them to reject a foreign power. Recognizing that religion was the problem, the Greek commanders and troops set out on a campaign to abolish the Jewish faith.

Others scholars believe that the intended goal of Hellenistic society was to promote their own way of life. They resolutely held that the freedom and pleasure which Greeks were privileged to enjoy must be offered to all men. Anything which stood in the way of their objective was barbaric and outdated. Nothing obstructed their path more than the traditional Jews' tenacious loyalty to their faith. Having never encountered this sort of devotion from any other peoples, and irritated by their inability to civilize the barbarians, the Greeks began persecuting the religion that was so inflexible, and its stubborn adherents.

One cannot wage battle against people who are powered by their beliefs So, what did the Greeks learn from their ruthless decrees against the Jews? They found out that one cannot wage battle against people who are powered by their beliefs. It is a lesson that should have been heeded by future generations--but unfortunately was not. No matter what weapons are employed, they can only assail the body of the enemy, because his inner fervor and commitments are impervious to all attacks. On the contrary, these assaults can serve only to stimulate the enemy's zeal and enhance his dedication. The Greeks enacted those unheard of decrees because they were so exasperated by the Jews' inflexible clinging to their traditions. During the war fought against the Greeks, the Jews demonstrated that the same unyielding faith can repel even the most powerful forces. They proved that a tiny, but motivated group of people can overcome the fiercest opposition.

This, then, is the lesson which should be gleaned from Chanukah. No display of might can ever banish that spark of hope and courage from man's heart. Tanks and battleships cannot vanquish the fortitude and determination for one's convictions. Brutality and aggressiveness will not overcome the passion which an individual feels for his beliefs. In the face of terror and discrimination, the deepest wells of mankind's gallant capabilities are exposed, enabling a handful of resisters to repel those that harass them. It happened over two thousand years ago, has occurred since, and will continue to take place: because that inner reserve of resilience and valor has never been diminished.1

Footnotes
1.
Sources: Elias Bickerman, God of the Maccabees pp. 61-62, pp. 76-92; Victor Tcherikovitch, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, pp. 178-199; Yizhak Baer, Zion (Hebrew) 33 (1968) pp. 101-124.
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suzy hander woodland hills, ca December 2, 2013

I always wondered why the Syrians were so determined to have life their way, including traditions. How proud are the entire Mattisyahu family, that includes us, must be for our faith in G-d. The Jewish people have kept Hanukkah alive each time we light the menorah. The tradition of Jewish customs and belief in the Torah is a wonder. This was an amazing article. Thank you, Asher Lowenstein. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY December 17, 2009

Two Parables The strength of commitment to religious belief is illustrated by two well-known parables. The first is a saying adapted from a translation from Russian: "Religion is like a nail. The harder you hit it, the deeper it goes." (Although Communism is gone, religious faith still burns across the Former Soviet Union; despite 70 years of atheism, there has been a renewal there of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam and other religions, including Judaism). The second parable is the famous children's story of how both the wind and sun wanted to get a man to take off his coat. The wind blew hard and cold but the man only clutched his coat tighter. Then the sun came out in all of its warmth, and the man finally draped his coat over his arm. (Wind representing religious persecution, sun representing religious freedom, coat representing religious beliefs). Both parables illustrate how people cling faster to their faith when others try to take it away.
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Nick new York, USA August 14, 2008

The rest of the story I accidentally was led to your site but I must say that your writing was most enjoyable to me. Congratulations, what a great site. The story is lucidly written and explained.
I think though that then, just as now, conflict must have had a political basis and it seems to me that the clash between the hellenists and, for lack of a better term, the "traditionalist" Jews must have been the basis. Do historical facts support this?

I have these discussion with my wife, who is jewish-greek but we can never agree on this specific issue. Nevertheless, we agree on one thing, that as cultures we have more similarities than differences.

Shalom Reply

Peter Cook Walkerton, Indiana December 13, 2006

Only one GOD Most of the pagan religions had many gods and could thus absorb a few more, but Judaism was very strict that there is just one GOD. They were unwilling to absorb some other god and thus this was a point of contention. It may well have been taken as an expression (and rightfully so) that the conquerors gods were inferior. Why were the Temple fixtures removed to Babylon, because that was a way of removing the Jewish gods from the land, but the Jews still worshipped GOD even with the symbols removed (and they didn't take on other gods) Reply

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