Chanuka — defeat or victory?

My Chanuka post drew a comment pointing out that the Chanuka victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks was not very long-lived, because the Chashmonaim (Maccabees) betrayed their own cause in the end:

And don’t forget how the story ends: Within a generation the Macabees were Hellenized -complete with Greek names. Very, quickly, they became exactly the sort of people the family founders had fought against.

I responded that the Sages of the Talmud indeed considered these descendants of the Maccabees to have been traitors and sinners — who caused their people untold grief and suffering, defeat and exile.

But I left unanswered an implicit question that I would now like to address:

Why do we continue to celebrate Chanuka if the victory was so short-lived?

To answer this question I am going to quote a recent exchange on Avodah (sorry I don’t remember how to get that URL). R’ Eli Turkel posted there,

Heard a shiur today that the essence of Chanukah is the renewal of the worship in the Temple under an independent Jewish monarchy.

….In summary in the first several hundred years of the second Temple
there was no Schechinah because they were ruled by the Persians and
the Greeks. After the revolt of the Maccabees the Schechinah returned
because there was a Jewish government. This return was symbolized by the fire coming down from Heaven. This fire is remembered by our lighting candles. Even the miracle of the oil served to symbolize the return of the Schechinah.

This was my response to him, and to the question of why we continue to celebrate Chanuka:

Independence lasted a pathetically short time and pretty soon the Jews were under the thumb of the Greeks (Hellenists) again, and then of the Romans. So the real miracle was not the military or political victory but the spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism, an eternal miracle unlike the short-lived victory of the Chashmonaim.

This eternal spiritual victory is symbolized by the miracle of the oil and lighting of candles. The miracle of the oil proved that the whole thing was miraculous and not bederech hateva, and that Jews should not think they are great soldiers and not pride themselves on kochi ve’otzam yadi but should realize that military victories come from G-d (and are not the main important victories anyway).

I will add only that we are still enjoying the fruits of the spiritual victory. Yes, the struggle between Torah Judaism and other ideologies continues in every generation, but we are still here. We are eternal. Am Yisrael Chai. That is the real Chanuka miracle.

NOTES
Shechinah = the Divine Presence
bederech hateva = by the laws of nature
kochi ve’otzam yadi = my might and the strength of my own hand
Am Yisrael Chai = The People of Israel Lives

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3 comments to Chanuka — defeat or victory?

  • Toby Katz

    R’ Charles Sheer, director of Hillel at Columbia University, writes in an Edah article reprinted in New Jersey Jewish News:

    For all the fuss we make about “our winter holiday,” most modern Jews would identify more with those who tilted toward assimilation than with the Maccabees. …
    Yet truth be told, it was the passion of those intolerant and rejectionist Maccabees that enabled traditional Judaism to survive. Those zealous few who rejected assimilation and suffered martyrdom rather than violate Shabbat or kashrut saved Judaism and the Jewish nation. Our unwillingness to imitate their tactics must be coupled with a deep appreciation for their contribution, and our own efforts must integrate their passion.

    On the other hand, our successful integration has been at a price. A review of recent population studies and the research shared at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities regarding the waning Jewish commitments of today’s youth clearly illustrate that assimilation has altered the way Jews identify with their heritage.

  • Charles B. Hall, PhD

    I thought that the monarchy established by the sons of the Maccabees wasn’t kosher because they were
    kohanim, and that a priest can’t be a king.

  • Toby Katz

    CH is right. The Talmud considered the original Maccabees, who defeated the Greeks and purified and renewed the Temple, to have been heroes and righteous men. However the Talmud was very critical of them and especially, of their descendants, for maintaining a monarchy that should by rights have gone to the tribe of Judah — to the family of King David. The Maccabees ended up, in the second and third generations, becoming Hellenizers not much better than the ones they had defeated.