We often say that the story of Hanukkah was about “the Jews vs. the Greeks.” On one level, that’s a mostly accurate story – King Antiochus tried to force the Jews to violate Jewish law, and the Maccabees fought back and drove the Greeks away, creating their own independent state. But as many people know now, framing Hanukkah as “the Jews vs. the Greeks” glosses over an incredibly complicated political and military dynamic before, during and after the rebellion. The descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, were such terrible rulers that when the later Rabbis told the story of Hanukkah, they created the story of the miracle of oil, and never once mentioned Judah Maccabee and his family.
Even more importantly, the “Greek way of life” (aka “Hellenism”) that the Maccabees revolted against wasn’t simply about banning circumcision and bringing idols into the Temple. Yes, those elements were anathema. But even by the time of the Hanukkah story, Greek thinking had already deeply influenced Judaism and Jewish life – so much so that one version of the story that emphasized how terribly the Greeks treated the Jews was written in Greek!
While this is a bit of an oversimplification, Greek thinking in 200s and 100s BCE was a predecessor of modern science today. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle explored universal questions – how does the world work? Where did it come from? How do we know things? Experimentation and systematic thinking were key, and came with an assumption that knowledge was universal. As Alexander the Great conquered the Eastern Mediterranean, Judaism came into contact with those ideas, and so Jews had to grapple with what they meant and how they would impact their day-to-day life.
So along the same over-simplified line, Jewish thinking played the role of modern religion today, focusing on the here and now and the particulars of the community. Since its inception, a key element of Judaism has been how its practices were separate and distinct from the other nations. Whether surrounded by larger empires, like Egypt, Assyria and Persia, or competing against similar-sized nations like the Canannites or Philistines, Judaism pushed back against assimilating into the larger world. What made the Hellenistic Empire so influential wasn’t just its military might, but also how it approached questions from a more global and philosophical perspective.
The Maccabean revolt arose in response to military provocation, but Judaism had been living with over 100 years of Hellenistic thinking in that part of the world. So the question facing the Jews in the 160s BCE wasn’t so much a question of whether to Hellenize or not; it was the outgrowth of decades of grappling with how, when and where to do so. While idol-worship and persecution sparked a rebellion, Hellenistic thinking was simply part of the intellectual climate.
So the real challenge — for both the Jews in the 160s BCE and those of us living today — centers on how we integrate the universal and the particular. And in many ways, that’s the goal of an idea central to both Greek and Jewish thinking: wisdom, called sophia in Greek and chochmah in Hebrew. Wisdom wasn’t just the first principles that the Greek philosophers tried to address, nor was it the nitty-gritty of Jewish law that the Hebrew Bible often focused on. Rather, wisdom was about how we understand ourselves, our community and our world, and most importantly, our role in it. And we need shared knowledge and perspectives, as well as unique ways to approach these questions.
In a recent article for Aeon, Nigel Warburton explains the different approaches to “wisdom” in that way – how both the similarities and the differences between them need to be celebrated.
First, we need to understand wisdom differently: not only as one’s personal philosophical quest, but also as an immersion in understanding how different humans and cultures develop their philosophies of life. Second, we recognise that this is a good thing, and that wisdom diversity is just like biodiversity: different cultures and individuals preserve insights that may later be useful for the wellbeing of others. Third, we appreciate that difference is not the end of the story, and that protection from destruction and danger requires a social organisation that embodies equality and cooperative behaviour.
Today, Hanukkah is a celebration of difference. The story of a small group of people who stood up for their own religious practices resonates in a world where a small Chanukiyah on a table is dwarfed next to a massive Christmas tree in the lobby. Yet Hanukkah is also a celebration of light in the darkness, which is a universal experience for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere. The time right around the winter solstice is cold and dark, so rituals and celebrations, from Saturnalia to Kwanzaa to Christmas to Hanukkah, bring more light and heat. But how they each do it is deeply particular.
Rather than seeing Hanukkah as “the Jews vs. the Greeks,” perhaps a better framing is how we think about how to balance universality and particularity. We understandably celebrate the Maccabees, who fought for the right to be different. But as human beings, we all face darkness and fear. Hanukkah allows us to bring our own way of lighting the way, finding us a little closer to truth – however we may find it.