Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once!But I think both approaches tend to miss, or at least obscure, the central message of Hanukkah. Hanukkah, at its core, was not really about miraculous oil or fighting against religious tyranny; it was an internal Jewish battle over identity within a secular world. Modern Jewish historians will tell you that Hanukkah wasn’t so much about Jews versus Syrian-Greeks but about assimilated (Hellenized) Jews who wanted to adopt Greek cultural norms versus orthodox traditionalists who rejected Greek practices as heretical. In fact, we know from other historical evidence that Seleucid kings let their conquered subjects practice whatever religious observance they chose. But in this case, Hellenized Jews who felt besieged by traditionalist opponents asked Antiochus to intercede. Hanukkah was the battleground for this struggle over Jewish identity.