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November 6, 2010


Rabbi Benjamin Edidin Scolnic

“Christmas is a major holiday. Hanukkah is a minor holiday with the theme: 'They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat.'”

This is the kind of thing I hear from Jewish people every year who find it amusing that Hanukkah in America blends into a kind of winter holiday. People crack jokes about Chrismukkah (from the television show The O.C.) and Festivus (from Seinfeld).

I'm not laughing. The holiday of Hanukkah, while traditionally a minor holiday because it was not instituted in the Torah, is nevertheless a serious holiday with important ideas.

There is a great deal of misinformation about the events surrounding Hanukkah, so let's briefly review them from a historical perspective. In 168/67 B.C.E., Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid Empire that covered a huge area of Asia, conducted one of the first religious persecutions in world history when he banned the practice of traditional Judaism in Judaea, specifically forbidding circumcision and the study of the Torah.

Incredibly, the Maccabees took on an empire and against all odds successfully fought to preserve their religious freedom. As Shaye Cohen, one of the preeminent scholars in the field has written, “What provoked the persecution by Epiphanes remain an enigma in spite of intense study by many scholars, but a persecution there was, and the war it provoked is history's first recorded struggle for religious liberty.” This is not just a sweet fairy tale but also the historical truth.

But let's take a look at the enigma. Why did Antiochus IV persecute not only the Jews, some of whom had rebelled against his chosen Jewish high priest (Menelaus), but also the religion itself? Remember, polytheists had no reason to dislike another person's religion or god(s); in a pantheon, there was always room for one more god or sacrifice.

There are many interesting theories to explain the persecution. Victor Tcherikover basically believed that the traditional model, in which the Jews rose up against oppression, is correct. Elias Bickerman stated that the persecution was initiated or prompted by assimilationist Jews like the high priest Menelaus, making the conflict that ensued more a civil war than a Jewish revolution against foreign oppressors. Erich Gruen thinks that Antiochus IV, after being humiliated by the Romans and forced to abandon his conquest of Egypt, needed to show his might. An empire was a fragile thing and the perception of power was power.

The Jews were known far and wide for their stubborn insistence on maintaining their unique monotheistic religion and so Antiochus IV could display his might for the whole world if he could get the Jews to stop practicing Judaism.

The problem with theories is that they seem to be mutually exclusive; in this case at least, each of the theories may be true to some extent. But Gruen's theory that the persecution was designed to separate Jews from Judaism creates a savage irony in this day of Christmukkah. In America today, thank G-d, no one persecutes us for worshipping in what should be our unique way. The only thing stopping us is us.

If the Maccabees would see what is going on in lots of Jewish homes today, they would wonder what they had fought for. Christmukkah is not funny; it is the antithesis of Hanukkah, which should be about Jews practicing Judaism.

This week's commentary was written by
Rabbi Benjamin Edidin Scolnic.
Rabbi Scolnic is an author who has been the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Connecticut since 1983.
Rabbi Benjamin Edidin Scolnic is the author of several books and many articles and essays on the Bible, feminism, liturgy, Jewish education, the relationship between religion and the media, and the future of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Scolnic's most recent work is Judaism Defined: Mattathisas and the Destiny of his People, University Press of America

100 voices“100 Voices: A Journey Home”
is a compelling and moving musical documentary that uniquely tells the history of Jewish culture in Poland. It highlights the current resurgence of Jewish culture through the personal reflections and musical selections of a group of cantors and acclaimed composer Charles Fox (“Killing Me Softly”, “I Got A Name” and many more) who made an important historical mission to the birthplace of Cantorial music. The documentary will give generations the opportunity to learn about and re-embrace the Jewish culture that produced one of the most artistic and educated societies that once flourished in Europe. Above all, the film celebrates the resilience and the power of Jewish life, while telling the story of two peoples who shared intertwined cultures.
Featuring Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi, Hazzan David Propis & 98 of their fellow members of the Cantorial Assembly. Hazzan Mizrahi will be at the 2011 FJMC International Convention, July 13 to 17, in Costa Mesa, CA.

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