Dear TEE community,

This year, more than ever, the celebration of Hanukkah has led me to think about the different stories associated with the holiday. In the Books of Maccabees (not included in the Jewish Bible, but preserved in some Christian versions), Hanukkah originates as a festival rededicating the Second Temple after the Maccabees’ military victory over the Greek occupiers of Judea. The Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, were militant warriors who championed the cause of Jewish sovereignty. Their revolt was fueled by a desire to resist Hellenistic influence and preserve the distinct religious and cultural identity of the Jewish people. For the Maccabees, power was synonymous with physical strength, military prowess, and the ability to assert independence in the face of external oppression.

The Talmudic rabbis told another version of the holiday’s origins. They taught that the real occasion for the observance was a miracle:

What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah?

The Sages taught…On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight…

What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean [Maccabean] monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. There was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of [psalms] and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.      – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b

The rabbis, who emerged as prominent figures in Jewish tradition after the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish autonomy, held a perspective on power which differed from that of their Maccabean predecessors. The rabbis’ conception of power was deeply rooted in spiritual and moral authority. They emphasized the significance of Torah study, ethical conduct, and communal cohesion as the pillars of Jewish strength. Rather than relying on military might, the rabbis believed in the enduring power of Jewish values to sustain the community across generations. This marked a shift from the Maccabean emphasis on armed resistance to a more inward-focused, spiritually grounded approach, which became foundational to Jewish thought.

The conflict between the Maccabees and the rabbis concerning the concept of Jewish power is a nuanced and intriguing aspect of the Hanukkah narrative. The tension between these two perspectives on Jewish power is reflective of broader debates within the Jewish community throughout history. It raises questions about the nature of strength, the role of violence in achieving political objectives, and the enduring influence of religious and cultural identity.

Many American Jews are experiencing this tension today as we witness the events in Israel and Palestine. Some of us feel a strong connection to the Maccabean message of the State of Israel that only military strength can ensure Jewish safety and survival. For others of us, it is the words of the prophet Zechariah (which the rabbis associated with Hanukkah) which speak to us: “‘Not by coercion and not by destruction but by My life-force,’ says God (Zechariah 4:6).” And for many of us, it is doubtless a mix of the two.

As we celebrate Hanukkah this year, may it be an opportunity to consider what we believe to be the ethical uses of Jewish power as we rededicate ourselves to the Jewish vision of a world of justice and peace for all the inhabitants of the earth.

Rabbi Drorah Setel