The hall was packed. This was no ordinary wedding, but the wedding of the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s most prominent families. Leaders in the still quiet and nonviolent rebellion against the Greeks, they were respected and loved by Jews throughout the Land of Israel. Not to mention that, as priests in the Temple, the family had been looked up to for generations.
Amidst the elegant flowers, soft music, and the conversations of the guests, the bride suddenly stood up, walked to the center of the room, placed her hand on her chest, and tore open her gown.
Shocked, angry, and embarrassed, her brothers rose to drag her from the room. But she stood firmly in place and addressed the room: “You who are so zealous that you would kill me, are not zealous enough to protect me from the hands of the Greek governor who will come here to assault me tonight.
“Did you not learn from Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, who, though only two men, killed the entire city of Shechem for her sake? Place your faith in the One Above, and He will help you.”
Her five brothers declared their willingness to go to war, and were answered by a voice emanating from the Holy of Holies promising victory.
In her eyes it was a story of the struggle for political freedom The story of the Maccabees’ brave revolt is a familiar one not only to Jews but to most non-Jews as well. I can still remember my second-grade music teacher in public school giving a brief account of the miracle of the oil before teaching the whole class “Rock of Ages.” What was left out of her account were all the details about what the Jews were really fighting for. In her eyes it was a story of the struggle for political freedom, and fit in quite nicely with news accounts of Sakharov, Mandela, and others struggling for personal and national liberty.
As I grew older and became more involved with Judaism and the Jewish community, details seeped in. Initially, the Greeks treated the Jews with greater respect than they had treated other peoples they conquered. Alexander the Great had seen the High Priest, Shimon the Righteous, in a dream, and when Shimon went out to meet his approaching army, Alexander knelt before him and pledged never to harm Jerusalem or the Holy Temple.
Years passed. Alexander and Shimon the Righteous both passed away. Some Jews became quite infatuated with Greek culture. But the more they imitated the Greeks, the less respect the Greeks had for us. They began to mock Judaism and enact laws against it. First they locked up the synagogues and schools. People prayed and studied in one another’s homes.
Then, the Greeks passed a law that all Jews had to write a sentence stating they had no portion in the G‑d of Israel on the horns of their livestock and on their doors. The Jews sold their livestock and removed the doors from their homes.
The Greeks passed a law outlawing circumcision. The Jews made up secret signs through which they announced circumcision ceremonies, and guests risked their lives to go wish the new parents “Mazel Tov!”
The Greek soldiers started assaulting Jewish women The Greeks outlawed Shabbat, the celebration of the New Moon, and Torah study. Jews hid in caves and continued to observe all three. The Greeks found hundreds of ways to try to stamp out Judaism. Jews found hundreds of ways to quietly rebel and to remain what they had always been. Then the Greek soldiers started assaulting Jewish women. The governor made a decree—unfortunately, a common one in ancient cultures—called jus primae noctis, “first night rights.” The governor would kidnap and assault every bride on her wedding night.
And then the Jews went to war.
The victory we celebrate on Chanukah is a victory on many levels. It is a victory of the few over the many, of light over darkness, of Jewish continuity in the face of all those who had sought, or would seek to, wipe out Judaism and Jewish history.
The Jewish people—men and women—defied every Greek law with enormous self-sacrifice, yet it was largely by and for the sake of Jewish women that the Maccabees were led to declare war.
The decisive moment occurred when one Jewish woman looked her brothers in the eye and told them, “You cannot let this happen to me.” It was a war, first and foremost, for sanctity—the sanctity of the Temple, the sanctity of Torah, and the sanctity of every human being.
Among the many miracles we acknowledge and commemorate as we kindle the lights of the menorah, we also acknowledge the simple truth of every woman’s sanctity and her right to personal safety and dignity.
It’s a detail well worth remembering.