At the heart of the Chanukah story is the heroism of the Maccabees. While the Greeks had sophisticated weapons of war, along with lightning-fast chariots, the Jews operated almost entirely on foot. The Greeks were an empire, a world power; the Jews were a band of upstarts. The Greeks were led by experienced generals, and the Maccabees by a family of priests. The gulf in numbers, training and equipment was immense. That is why the eventual victory against the Greeks is a central part of the miracle of Chanukah. No one observing this mismatched struggle would have given the Jews even the slightest chance.

Was It Allowed by Torah Law?

By any reasonable estimation, their vastly unequal footing would have made the instigation of war a straightforward suicide mission! There was simply no natural way for the Jews to have succeeded in their endeavor. We may then ask: Is it even permitted according to Jewish law to put oneself in such certain danger?

Of course, according to the Torah, war is permitted when circumstances warrant it.1 In some cases, it is even obligatory.2 Needless to say, war is dangerous and typically leads to many deaths. But one wages war with the objective of being victorious, and the losses are the price of conflict. Here, however, the war seemed totally hopeless, as there seemed to be no way that it could have ended in anything other than total defeat.

In hindsight, we know that “a great miracle happened there,”3 and a historic victory was achieved. But the Jews could not have known this would happen. Based on the facts available to them, their objective was impossible to achieve, and was destined to result in deadly consequences. By what right did the Maccabees initiate a conflict that, according to any reasonable assessment, was going to conclude in carnage?

When Calculus Goes Out the Window

Now, Jewish law requires a person to accept death rather than violate one of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, murder, and incest.4 During times of oppression, the requirement to defy the oppressor even at the pain of death extends to violating any Torah law.5 In the story of Chanukah, the Greeks opposed the practice of Judaism and had banned the observance of many basic Jewish rituals. In situations such as these, risking one’s life by refusing to transgress is legitimate.

But while individuals refusing to bow is one thing, triggering a full-scale conflict that is bound to unleash the full power of the Greek army is quite another. The Jews could have continued to risk their lives defying Greek oppression, while stopping short of a head-on conflict. Today, we think of the Maccabees as heroes because they were successful. But does that justify the highly reckless military adventure that could have ended in a bloodbath? History may have vindicated them, but what is their legal justification?

Priests Waging War

The Rebbe provides a novel insight into the motivation behind the Maccabees’ stance. Who were the Maccabees, and why were they the ones leading the charge? In the “Haneirot Hallalu” liturgy we recite after lighting the Chanukah candles, we are told that the great miracles and salvation came about “by the hands of the holy priests (kohanim).” Maimonides also says, “... then the sons of Chashmonai, the high priests, prevailed …”6 Why are they described in this way? What seems relevant is that they were warriors, not their priestly status.

It must be, the Rebbe concludes, that it was their unique background as religious leaders that led them to wage war. How so?

Several halachic authorities7 rule that there is a situation in which it is permissible – even meritorious – to give up one’s life over even the smallest point of Jewish practice: A person who is “great, pious, or “G‑d fearing” at a time when Judaism is at risk of collapse.

Sadly, there have been many occasions in Jewish history where an oppressive regime has taken upon itself to crush Judaism. Think of the communist Soviet Union, especially in its early decades. The battle the Jewish people faced at those times was not about specific practices or rituals, but about the very existence of Judaism. The Greeks at the time of Chanukah were not merely objecting to specific Jewish rites; they were at war with the religion itself.

The Greek agenda posed an existential threat to Judaism. As we recite in the special addition to the Amida prayer on Chanukah, the enemy’s goal was: “to make [us] forget Your Torah, and to make [us] transgress the laws You willed.”8 In such a situation, halachah allows for noble-spirited Jewish leaders to take the fight to the oppressor, regardless of the risk. When the fight is for the very survival of the faith, it becomes a matter of standing for principle – and it is incumbent upon the saintliest individual to set the example.

It is therefore central to the conflict in the Chanukah story that it was waged by the priests. They were the ones who needed to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to prevent Judaism from slipping into oblivion. It mattered little to them how great the risk, or how poor their chances of survival. They were not standing up for a single mitzvah; they were defending the entire faith.

By instigating a war against the Greeks, regardless of the risk or the cost, the Maccabees were making a statement for their generation, and for all generations to come: There are people of stature who will never reconcile themselves with the destruction of Judaism.

What It Means for Us

Their act of supreme courage stands as a beacon for all eternity, that when it comes to the survival of Judaism there is no way we will ever capitulate. No matter the size or power of the opposition, and irrespective of their ruthlessness, we will stand our ground.

The outcome of that fateful battle was miraculous, but it was based on the towering courage of heroic believers. When we kindle our Chanukah candles each year, the light that glows is the spirit of faith and determination of the Maccabees. We recall their commitment to spreading light in the face of overwhelming darkness. We carry their torch today. We need to have the courage of our convictions. That is today’s miracle.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 35, Parshat Vayeishev II.