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Rabbi’s Word: Stiffnecked People

We continue cooperation with the institute of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz and publish specially prepared material for the communities of the EAJC members.

The Al HaNissim prayer, that we recite on the holy days of Channukah, contains a detailed description of the events of that time: religious persecution, war, victory over the Greeks and, finally, the cleansing and the rededication of the Temple. Therefore, the victory is considered the foundation of the holiday, and it is much more important than a miracle of the cruse of oil, which is described in the Talmud (Shabbat, 21b). That is why, from year to year, we recollect it on Chanukkah days. But what was the essence of the war that erupted in those days – and what was the significance of the victory that we still keep on celebrating today?

Although the war with the Greeks led to the state independence of Judea, the uprising was obviously not caused by any political or nationalistic motives. It is a fact that Jews had lived under the rule of others for centuries without initiating revolts, seeking to gain state independence.

The war was not waged against Greek language or Greek culture per se. It had a more fundamental character.

The process of the spread of Hellenistic culture in such of its aspects as language, lifestyle, and religion was happening without the destruction of temples and clashes on religious grounds. Authorities encouraged a synthesis of Hellenism with local cultures and religious traditions.

Indeed, Hellinism managed to integrate perfectly into the cultures of the Sidonians, Philistines, and many other peoples on the territory where the empire of Alexander the Great once stretched, from India to Egypt.

The Greeks demanded that the Jews should be open to their deities and ideas, just as they, in turn, were ready to be tolerant of Jewish worship. Tolerance and mutual recognition were an important principle underlying the rule of Hellenistic culture. However, Judaism, by its very nature, cannot be tolerant. A Jew denies the existence of pagan gods and, of course, cannot accept Judeo-pagan syncretism in any form.

One must think that the first Hellenists among the Jews were not violators of the law, and did not commit demonstrative acts contradicting the Jewish religion. They were just Jews, ready for compromise. For the most part, the Hellenists did not “despise the Lord and His anointed.” They just initially adopted a flexible value system. They did not refuse the Jewish way of life, but their willingness to follow this path had certain limits. For them, Judaism is a world where one can live, as long as it is limited by certain limits that everyone sets for themselves. If in Judaism something is contrary to their worldview, modern trends or the principle of tolerance, it is Judaism that has to make concessions.

The Hellenists, not yet becoming apostates, took a much more fundamental step: they rejected the principle of exclusivity, thus abandoning the uncompromising nature of Judaism.

If today there were someone who would follow Mattathias’s example, all the “sane Jews” would, of course, publicly denounce his actions in the newspapers. Perhaps in the Maccabean era, there was also a similar critical announcement that came out, signed by the high priest himself and other important persons. Its text could have been like this: “The Jewish leadership fully condemns this act. This crime is a shame for Judaism. It was committed by a bunch of fanatics that do not represent anyone but themselves. One should not take an example from them and provide them with any kind of assistance.” In fact, initially most Jews in the Land of Israel did not support the Maccabean revolt. The rebels made up only about ten percent of the Jewish population. But their willingness to give their lives, for the sake of the commandments of the Torah and the denial of any compromises, drove them to fight against the Seleucid empire.


On Channukah, we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the “Hellenophiles” and over Hellenism that spread among the Jewish people.

Every year on these holidays, we recall that it is our duty to fight for the principles that do not accept any compromise. This is of particular importance in our time, when the same problems that we had in the past are becoming a part of the agenda. Chanukkah is a clash between the stiff-necked and intolerant Jewish people with an “open” and “tolerant” world.

Hellinistic civilization was very similar to ours.

In our days, most people accept the global culture not because they believe in the truth of its philosophical premises, but simply follow generally accepted standards, just as most Hellenists accepted Greek culture without believing in it.

Tolerance and “enlightenment” in modern global culture originate from the fact that most people do not assign real importance to their own principles and values. When someone does not believe in their path, and their friend also does not believe in his, which could be the complete opposite of the first – it wouldn’t be hard for them to live in peace and harmony with each other. Complete tolerance points to devaluation of principles. Only such tolerance allows accepting other people’s values, even if they contradict their own.

Nowadays, the essence of the surrounding world is that we can agree upon everything and compromise about everything, as all values are relative and don’t have an objective value. All principles are equivalent: none of them requires going too far.

Contrary to that, the celebration of Channukah is based on the understanding that there are such concepts as “Jew” and “Jewish essence” that a Jew cannot compromise. Moreover, one must admit that this essence is within him/her.

The immediate result of the war, in memory of which we celebrate Chanukkah, was the continuation of existence of Judaism. It can be assumed that if the Maccabees had not rebelled or suffered a defeat, our fate would have been similar to the fate of neighboring peoples: the Philistines, Ammonites and Moabites who assimilated and, having lost their ethnical characteristics, left the stage of history. It was a war to preserve Jewish identity. Miraculously, so far we have managed to achieve this goal.

Wars, victories and defeats are events that vanish from the historical memory of the people after they occur. The Jewish state was defeated at least twice, and Jews were scattered over different countries, but, in spite of everything, our people have survived. However, if we lose our special identity even once, neither our territory nor our flag will help us, because without it we have nothing. Since then and until now, on Chanukkah, we haven’t been fighting for our political independence, but rather for our identity. The victory we gained more than two thousand years ago was not just a continuation of existence. We are not only an ethnic community living in this world, but a unique pulsating entity, which exists within it, called Judaism.

Extract from a book “Change and renewal”.