Rabbi Brant Rosen of the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue and Rabbis for Human Rights keeps a personal blog, “Shalom Rav.” On Dec. 18, 2006, he posted the “real story of Chanukah,” a story that will still be a revelation to many Jews. The Maccabbees, father Mattathias and his sons, whom Jewish children have grown up adoring as the brave leaders in a struggle against religious persecution, were not really such great guys, he wrote. While they did rebel against religious persecution in 167 B.C., he said, they also “fought bitterly against the assimilated, Hellenized Jews of their day.”
In a blog entry for Dec. 2009, Rabbi Rosen quoted an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times on the meaning of Chanukah, pointing out that after the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, “… their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. … The Maccabbees became religious oppressors themselves. …” The Maccabbees and their followers were, in a sense, fundamentalists who rejected, philosophically and with physical violence, Jews who were more like most Jews today in America.
Once one knows how hugely this “real story” differs from the story most modern Jews celebrate when lighting the candles on Chanukah, the difference cannot be ignored. As Rabbi Rosen wrote in 2006, “… [M]aybe, as we light our candles, we should take some time out to ponder how we might commemorate this complex legacy as 21st-century American Jews.”
Americans of all backgrounds have come to realize that their most fondly regarded stories of heroes are not, strictly speaking, true. While Abraham Lincoln, for example, did indeed detest slavery, it was not his moral convictions, but economic ones, that pushed him finally to ban it.
Christopher Columbus not only did not discover America – Leif Eriksen got here first – but, really, the word “discover” seems at best inaccurate when there were already people here who knew exactly where they were. The newcomers did not treat these people very well, either, despite their willingness to share, which we celebrate as Thanksgiving.
The celebration of Thanksgiving itself ignores the brutal and deceitful treatment of native Americans for 200 years (at least) at the hands of the immigrants. These real stories must be faced, as must the story of the Maccabbees and Chanukah. And yet, in the simple story that is different from the real story, there is still something true, something real and worth honoring and celebrating. The holiday of Thanksgiving, whatever happened in history, is nonetheless a call to remember what we must be grateful for and appreciate. It is a reminder to recognize the goodness in life, even when there may be so much ill.
Though the Maccabbees in real life may not have been so deserving of the honor given them down the ages, the principles and ideas they have come to represent for Jews over the centuries are. Standing up for one’s beliefs is one. Keeping hold of a faith that even against great odds, a virtuous struggle may prevail or inspire action in others more fearful or downtrodden is another. These are things that, in the end, may have nothing to do with the Maccabbees, but everything to do with Chanukah.
Rabbi Rosen in 2009 said that he has become “much more interested in the universal meaning of the festival: increasing the light during an increasingly dark time of year. … As the dark descends, Chanukah comes to remind us that brighter times are in our future.