The Chanukah Story: A Cautionary Tale of Extremism Gone Wrong

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menorah-templeOne of the anomalies of Chanukah is that we have historical and apocryphal texts along with rabbinic texts. We have a pretty reliable idea of what life was like when the Chanukah story took place. I think the context of the story sheds light on the far reaching consequences of the Chanukah story.

The Seleucid-Greeks were involved in a three way civil war. They thought conquering Israel would solve their problems by giving them a port in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile Greeks were integrating into the culture of the Land of Israel. This relationship started off amicably. The Septuagint was published. Greek / Jewish relations seemed okay. The two cultures shared some impressive characteristics. They both valued wisdom and scholarship as opposed to brute force. The Rabbis even considered Greek a sub-Hebrew language in the rank of languages. There was a legal system that was older and just as comperehensive as the Greek system.

On one hand the Greeks would be able to find much in common with Jewish people. On the other hand, there was no “need” for the Greeks to modernize the Jews. They weren’t a savage tribe that needs laws and philosophy to teach them how to live. Greek and Jews could live together so long as there was no attempt by one or the other to assert their will above the other. Many Jews adopted Greek culture into their lives. Some went too far and became Greeks or Hellenists. Other were religious, law abiding Jews who were acculturated.

At the same time that this is happening, a schism is forming within Judaism. The Pharisees were the traditionalists. They believed that the Oral Tradition was Divine and binding. They were heavily representative of rabbis and members of the priestly class. A non-rabbinic group was in its nascent stages and they called themselves the Sadducees. They rejected the Oral Law and rabbinic authority. The Sadducees saw a natural ally in the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews. They recruited the Greeks and Hellenized Jews to their cause. They were a good fit because the Hellenists were less traditional than the Pharisees and the Sadducees rejected tradition.

Eventually the Hellenists and Sadducees enlist the Greeks to help their cause. The Seleucid King Antiochus is happy to oblige and he begins a reign of terror over the Jewish people. He forbade celebrating Jewish holidays, Torah study, and circumcision. The Pharisaic Jews resist these laws. The hand of the Greeks comes fast and heavy.

First there were passive rebels. They ignored the decrees and were mercilessly slaughtered. A war was not ideal because it would kill Hellenist Jews as well as Greek intruders. But in the end there was no choice. The Hasmoneans led a spirited rebellion and after 25 years of war eventually vanquished the Greeks. After just 3 years of fighting, Jerusalem is reconquered and the Hasmoneans rededicated the Temple and in a great symbolic and moral victory they lit the Menorah. The next year they instituted an eight day celebration that we are in the midst of celebrating right now.

This is the start of the Hasmonean dynasty. It lasts 103 years and ends tragically with zero Jews remaining from their line. Worse, another civil war that could be blamed on the Hasmoneans invites the Romans into Israel and eventually the Romans destroy the Temple and exile the Jewish people in one of the most horrific genocides in our history.

Hundreds of years later, the Talmud wants to distract us from the military victory because of the corruption it caused. The rabbis frowned upon the Hasmoneans. They focus on the miracle of the oil. The heretofore-unmentioned miracle of the oil. It is not mentioned in Maccabees or Josephus. The Braisa in Shabbos tells us about the miracle for the first time. Clearly, the rabbis of the Talmud were distracting the attention of the holiday from the victory of the war to the miracle of the oil.


There can be many answers to this question. I propose the following possibility. Maybe the rabbis shifted the focus to the oil to remind us that the Hasmoneans were not exemplars of what the Torah really wants from us.

The Ramban says that the Hasmoneans were doomed because they usurped the Jewish monarchy and were also the Priests. They had all the power and the honor. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what was their fatal flaw? Why did they mess up so badly? Why didn’t they restore the Davidic monarchy? Why did they insist on keeping all the power?

I believe their flaw was a failure to properly adjust to modernity. They rejected everything Greek. They sought to completely remove the Greek influence from Israel. This exacerbated the rift between them and the Saducees and Hellenists. This caused those groups to enlist the Greeks. This caused a war. The Hasmonean led Pharisees were unyielding. They would not rest until their brethren completely rejected anything but their stringent beliefs. But the irony is that their fundamentalism worked for a little while. They did liberate the Temple. They did restore Jewish sovereignty to Israel.

But their ultimate downfall was because of a failure to address modernity. They had no approach to Greek culture. It was all or nothing. This was a recipe for short-lived success but eventual disaster. In the end the Hasmoneans were only able to reject or fully embrace the Greek culture. The Hasmoneans wound up as assimilated as one can possibly be. They had no approach to deal with modernity and they failed it.

The rabbis of the Talmud did have an approach to deal with modernity. They were Torah scholars but were well versed in the science and philosophy of their day. The rabbis were not “all or nothing”. The rabbis of the Talmud were willing to explore the wisdom that came from outside the Torah. The rabbis wanted us to realize the mistake of the Hasmoneans and focused on the oil, which was not really as important as the victory in the war. But the oil story has staying power. As we are taught, the Menorah in the Temple had 7 lamps and the three lamps on either side represented the wisdom of the world turning toward the center of Torah. That lesson is a lesson taught by the rabbis of the Talmud. The Hasmoneans could not relate to that idea.

On a deeper level, the oil teaches us another thing. Fire is the fusion of spiritual and physical. It is physical but it is used to symbolize the spiritual. We light candles for the souls of our loved ones. Fire is a nexus between the physical and spiritual worlds. The miracle of the oil part of the story makes Chanukah about the using of military might and newfound autonomy for service of God. We are being told that the Hasmonean way is not to revered or emulated. The fire and oil remind us to integrate the world with Torah. This was a message the rabbis could endorse.

Adapted from Chanukah 2011 Address: What Doomed the Hasmoneans?

  • S.

    אגריפס המלך עמד וקיבל, וקרא עומד; ושיבחוהו חכמים. וכשהגיע “לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נוכרי, אשר לא אחיך הוא” (דברים יז,טו), זלגו עיניו דמעות; אמרו לו, אל תתיירא אגריפס, אחינו אתה, אחינו אתה.

  • Richard Friedman

    fascinating take on Chanukah -Insightful and sobering . Why did the Hasmoneans invite the Romans? as a leverage against the Hellenist empire?

    • They invited the Romans to help in their civil war that preceded the Temple’s destruction.

  • vladimir

    We even look better in candle light. But certainly we become better on Chanukah

  • Jim

    “At the same time that this is happening, a schism is forming within Judaism. The Pharisees were the traditionalists.”

    How do you know they were the traditionalists and not a new sect themselves?

  • Jim

    “But in the end there was no choice. The Hasmoneans led a spirited rebellion and after 25 years of war eventually vanquished the Greeks.”

    My understanding was that they were all too happy to kill the Hellenized Jews and that the war was more of a civil war than a war against the Greeks. It was almost that the Greeks were a proxy in the civil war. No?

  • Ruvie

    It’s doubtful that there were Sadducees and Pharisees at this time. Tha Hasmonean’s religious inclinations are difficult to ascertain. neither from zadokite priestly clan nor davidic dynasty is problematic. The constant exposure to ritual impurity – death – is a biblical no no.they were traditionalist of a sort and upheld the Torah as the constitution of judea. They also stood for integration as well – or hellinization. Even Judah the macabi counted the most culturally hellenized Jews among his partisans. What they did show was the ability to adopt Greek culture could function in an Hellenistic world to preserve a native – judean – culture. Mordern orthodoxy’s beginnings anyone?

  • Ruvie

    Where do you find that Sadducees and Pharisees existed at that point in time? Are they mentioned in the book of the Maccabees ?

  • david a.

    By and large an interesting and open-minded
    post but with many bad assumptions and/or untrue statements. I don’t have time
    to fisk it all, but I would like to comment on the most egregious. It drives me
    nuts whenever I speak (in learning too) to my fellow traditionalist/charedi
    types and you repeated it here a few times.

    Some quotes from your post..…

    “they called themselves the Sadducees. They rejected the Oral Law”
    …Me: absolutely misleading

    “the Sadducees rejected tradition”. Me: Absolutely not true

    “The Pharisees were the traditionalists. They believed that the Oral Tradition was Divine and binding.”…Me: so did the Sadducees.

    Here is the fact.

    In that period, as you well know, there were many sects, Essenes, Zealots, Qumran sect, etc. Basically, they ALL adhered to the Torah and they ALL must have had an Oral Tradition. As
    you well realize, the Written Torah is pretty useless as a core religious document without a full sized translation/interpretation/tradition. That’s a fact.

    What you must have meant and the Gemorrah should’ve written is that they (Sadducees) didn’t keep the same Oral tradition recorded by the Mishna. In fact the Mishna itself records thousands of disputes, resulting in a multi-faceted Oral tradition.

    So, truthfully, who really knows which was the most authentic oral interpretation/tradition of the Torah.

    And if you believe that our (Shuchan Orech, Rambam, etc.) version is the one going back to Sinai…well…

  • curious george

    A very novel way of looking at this story. Very Hirschian in approach. I wonder though, why would our sages focus on the war of the Chashmonaim in Al Hanisim if we are actually not supposed to emulate their intense and one track ways. And why praise them explicitly in Maoz Tzur?

  • Ari

    ” A populist group also formed and they called themselves the Sadducees.”
    Wikipedia: The Sadducees have their support only among
    the rich, and the people do not follow them, while the Pharisees have
    the people for their ally.” Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.298

  • G*3

    > The Pharisees were the traditionalists. They believed that the Oral Tradition was Divine and binding. They were heavily representative of rabbis and members of the priestly class. A populist group also formed and they called themselves the Sadducees. They rejected the Oral Law and rabbinic authority.

    I don’t think that’s right. The rabbonim were Pharisees, but the Sadducees were kohanim,
    and the kohanic aristocracy at that. The Pharisees were the populist movement, insisting
    on things like that the average person needed to worry about tummah and tahara (the Sadducees said that it didn’t matter – just don’t go to the Beis HaMikdash if you’re taamie), that learning is as important as the avodah, that we’re judged in the afterlife, etc.

    If anything, the Sadducees were the traditionalists. They were the guardians of the priestly religion of the Beis HaMikdash. It was the Pharisees who introduced concepts like Talmud
    torah keneged kulam and Olam Habo (which is never mentioned in the Chumash).

    I love your take, but isn’t it just a vort? Is it really a possibility that the military victory was
    downplayed to teach us we need to integrate Judaism with the culture we live in? It seems much more likely that a general dislike of the very Hellenized Chashmonaim, a move away from a militaristic culture during galus Bavel, and a recognition of the impermanence of the victory and it’s weakness as a reason for an annual holiday are why the miracle of the oil was invented.

    • (Yes, it’s just a vort. I grew up hearing Chanukah divrei Torah and 99.99% of them were far more flimsy than this and they all had the same message of anti-secular influence and culture. I did my own vort to present another approach.)

  • The Chashmonaim refused to give up the monarchy because they couldn’t integrate modernity? What’s the link? And there are numerous gemarahs warning against lay-people studying Chachma Yevanis as you well know, seemingly as the RMBM points out the point of scholars learning it was to adjudicate properly, but not to know.

    Overall, you seem to be trying too hard to fit the classical story into modern parlance and I dont find it convincing Still, I”m not satisfied with any other reasons why the Chasmonaim failed following this great victory.