“If one could nominate an absolutely tragic day in human history, it would be the occasion that is now commemorated by the vapid and annoying holiday known as ‘Hannukah.’ For once, instead of Christianity plagiarizing from Judaism, the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with ‘Christmas,’ which is itself a quasi-Christian annexation…. Here is the terminus to which banal ‘multiculturalism’ has brought us…. The Maccabees, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews of Palestine and elsewhere who had become more attracted by Hellenism. These true early multuculturalists had become bored by ‘the law,’ offended by circumcision, interested in Greek literature, drawn by the physical and intellectual exercises of the gymnasium, and rather adept at philosophy….” – Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 273-274.
How about a bit of Jewish history?
The rabbis in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) ask, as if they did not know, “What is Chanukkah?”, to explain that on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (in 164 BCE), the Jewish guerilla fighters, led by Matityahu (Mattatias, in Greek) and his sons (“Hasmoneans” or Hashmonai in Hebrew), defeated the “[Syrian-] Greeks” who seized and ransacked the Jerusalem Temple (in 167 BCE). Upon breaking the barricade, the Hasmoneans found only one undefiled cruse of oil left to light the Menorah, the large candelabrum in the Temple sanctuary, which miraculously burned for eight days. The end.
Now, let’s get serious. The guerilla rebels ambushed the powerful Syrian-Greek mercenary army for three years, and, in the end, – all the fuss, all the commotion, all the gore – in order to light the Menorah!? The miracle of the oil must have been quite a consolation prize.
If we were to supplement this succinct Talmudic account with what we know from other (more) historical sources, this miracle of the oil happened in the most unfavorable and adverse of circumstances. The city of Jerusalem, let alone the tiny province of Judea, was still very much under full iron-clad rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian-Greek emperor. The rebels were holed up and surrounded by a powerful adversary that was fully in control of Jerusalem. Antiochus might have allowed the rebels to congregate in the Temple to flush them out for once and for all.
Chanukkah, the “consecration” of the Temple, refers to the Biblically-ordained eight-day process of ritually purifying the Temple, which should not be confused with “national liberation” in our modern parlance. It took the Hasmoneans another twenty or more years to retake Jerusalem and its environs. The Talmud says nothing about what subsequently happened, nor does it say much about the Hasmonean dynasty, the Jewish royal family to rule the last time Jews had a sovereign state in Palestine before 1948, whose military and diplomatic achievements expanded the territory of Judea to rival that of the fabled Kingdom of David.
This question why the Talmud focuses on the “consecration” of the Temple, ending the story with the miracle of the oil, is quite old. Some suggest the Talmud meant to minimize the military victory in the Chanukkah celebration. What the rebels pulled off, beating back the superior Syrian-Greek army, was a remarkable military feat, but was it actually a military victory? Judea was still very much under the Syrian-Greek yoke.
What about the other common misconception in Hitchens’ quote above that Chanukkah commemorates the triumph of Judaism over Hellenism? It would be utterly foolish to ignore how much Judaism owes to Hellenism: in law, – yes, Talmudic law, – in logic, in philosophy, in mysticism, etc. At the time of the Chanukkah story, there were Judeans who touted Hellenism as an ideology in their quest for power, but all Judeans without exception shared the political culture and economy that was by then deeply Hellenistic, especially in towns along the coastal plains or urban centers like Jerusalem.
Judaism and Hellenism naturally coexisted, co-extended, and cross-pollinated. The problem was not with Hellenism per se, which was an all-encompassing pagan universalism that incorporated many indigenous cultures in the Near East and around the Mediterrenean basin. The boundary line between Judaism and Hellenism was determined more by Jewish observance (ancestral customs) than theology. Judeans were influenced by a variety of pagan beliefs, to the point that according to puritan monotheistic standards, they were quite pagan, as well. Significantly, Matityahu launched the rebellion by crying out, “Who is among the gods, like you, oh God?” (based on Biblical verse).
Nevertheless, specifically the battle cry in Greek, Heis Deus (“God is One!” or “There is one God!”), took on an important meaning in the Chanukkah story. It became a quintessential slogan of the Hasmoneans and their supporters, although there were also powerful Judeans who were ideologically opposed to this slogan. In the latter case, this ideological Hellenism was twofold:
(a) In the intellectual-cultural sense, one may worship only one God, but to deny the existence of other gods was considered as an affront to the various peoples who worshipped them. The Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, were basically monotheists; logic dictated there had to be only single Prime Cause, for example; but, they did not deny the existence of “demi-gods” or divine beings like angels. They did not disrespect the cultures that worshipped them.
(b) In the geo-political sense, Antiochus Epiphanes could not have attempted to suppress Jewish observances, – the casus belli for the Hasmonean rebellion that in the Talmud concluded with the miracle of the oil, – without the support of a powerful caucus of Judeans in and about Jerusalem for whom Hellenism was the royal road to regional power. These Judeans were Hellenizers in the specific sense that they considered Jewish ancestral customs fundamentally incompatible with Hellenism, which included loyalty to the emperor, Antiochus, who was also considered divine (Epiphanes).
This Antiochus was also one of the most powerful rulers in the world at this time. Was he so naive as to think he could change, alter, reengineer an entire Jewish people or culture?
In fact, the whole brouhaha of Chanukkah, Judeans in power in Jerusalem loyal to Antiochus helped to finance his invasion of Egypt. It was after Antiochus capitulated to the Roman demands not to conquer Egypt, he ransacked the Jerusalem Temple to pay his mercenary army. Judeans riots and he retaliated by enforcing the Hellenizers’ agenda and suppressing the Jewish observances that specifically preserved Jewish distinctiveness, – like circumcision or the Sabbath rest, etc.
In this context, it seems to me, the Hasmonean rebels fought for the “consecration” of the Temple, to show Judaism was not incompatible with Hellenist culture, that pagan universalism was not incompatible with Jewish particularism, and that the existence of the Jews following their ancestral customs was not incompatible with the Hellenist world. So, in hindsight, the miracle of the oil points to perseverance of Jewish culture even when Jews were quite adept at undermining their own culture, whether or not they claimed to represent the Jewish people.