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The Spirit of Chanukah or Where Are the Maccabees When We Need Them The Most?

By Bill Narvey, December 9, 2010

For a great many Jews, the 8 day celebration of Chanukah is a time to call the kids and grandkids to wish them Happy Chanukah, a time to send out Happy Chanukah cards by snail or e mail, a time for parents to give their kids and grandkids Chanukah gifts, a time for family and friends to gather  for Chanukah dinners begun with the lighting of the Chanukah candles and recitation of several blessings and a time for all gathered to enjoy the spirit of Chanukah bound up in the aroma of Chanukah latkes, the lively table chat  on matters having nothing to do with Chanukah and the warm, loving and friendly atmosphere surrounding and filling those gathered at the Chanukah table.

An impartial observer witnessing how a great many Jews celebrate the 8 days of Chanukah, could easily confuse those celebrations with Christians celebrating Christmas. 

For a great many and an increasing number of Jews, but for recalling why Chanukah is celebrated over 8 days,  the real spirit, meaning and significance of Chanukah to be found in history has been  ignored,  forgotten or never learned. 

The thumbnail historical sketch is that in the 4th century B.C.E. Alexander the Great had conquered many lands, including Judea. After him, the region remained under Greek rule by a group in the East including Egypt, known as the Ptolemies and a group in the West, including Judea, called  the Seleucids. 

With that,  Greek culture came to Judea in which all Jews then lived.   Many Jews began to assimilate Greek culture into their style of dress, customs, thought, language and lifestyles.  

In 169 B.C.E.,  Seleucid King Antiochus IV angered by a Jewish revolt to depose and replace Antiochus’ lackey Jewish high Priest,  Menelaus,  slaughtered a large number of Jews, declared martial law, banned certain Jewish  practices as capital crimes, specifically Shabbat and circumcision and he profaned and defiled the Temple by introducing foreign worship and Greek statuary.

Antiochus was supported by some Jews, however his actions and decrees were intolerable to a group of Jews  led by a priestly family, the Hasmoneans, being the father Mattathias and his 5 sons, one of whom became famously known as Yehuda Maccabee (the hammer).   The name Maccabee became synonymous with Hasmoneans, who as leaders,  united the Jews in revolt against Antiochus’s armies and against all odds,  ultimately defeated them in 165 B.C.E.

With victory, the Jews  cleansed, restored and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Hebrew word Chanukah means  dedication and we Jews have, for just over 2 millennia been celebrating the 8 days of Chanukah in recognition of this victory. 

The Maccabee’s Chanukah victory was not however,  just about restoring the Temple and Jews winning the  right to live as Jews and practice their religion in a Greco cultural world.

Just as significantly, if not moreso, the Maccabees led the Jews of Judea back  from the brink of extinction by assimilation into the Greek world that was being forced upon them and  hastened under the hand of Antiochus IV.

Today, while our right to live as Jews and practice our Judaic faith is not threatened, our will to exercise that right is and that will is being sapped by assimilation. 

Over the past number of decades, we have witnessed the devastating toll taken on our world Jewish population by all facets of assimilation.

This time however, there is no Antiochus IV to force assimilation upon us.

Rather, growing numbers of Jews are willingly embracing assimilation  for various reasons such as  being enticed by secularism that allows for belief without the effort of observant religious practice or of learning  from whence those beliefs came and  social acceptance, integration and advancement within a largely non-Jewish society.  
History and statistics, be it of increased intermarriage without the non-Jewish spouse converting,  children of such mixed unions and even of Jewish unions, not being exposed to, nurtured in and educated about things Jewish, lower Jewish birthrates or simply Jews abandoning Judaism and taking on no religion,  paint a very clear and unmistakeable picture of the dimming prospects for long term Jewish survival as growing numbers of Jews consequently leave their Jewishness behind.

Before the Holocaust, the world Jewish population stood at 19 million.  After the Holocaust that population was about 13 million and there has been no growth since, as that still is the number of the world’s Jewish population, some 60 plus years or 3 generations since the Holocaust. Some of those statistics, readily accessible via the interent are even more dire as they speak to a declining world Jewish population.

The European Jewish Press reported in a recent  article,  Rabbi: assimilation is 'biggest threat' to Jewish people that at a 2009 annual conference of the Rabbinical Center of Europe (RCE) in Paris,  300 Rabbis all expressed shock on hearing of U.S. statistics “showing that out of 100 Jews from the first generation only 3 are left as Jews in the fourth generation,” concluding that “assimilation is a “bigger threat” than anti-Semitism and terrorism for the future of Jews.”

Well HELLO!  Have these European Rabbis been asleep all these years?

And where have our North American Rabbis and Jewish leaders  been all these years on this issue?
Certainly not in the forefront to aggressively lead us Jews who care about Jewish survival, in a revolt against assimilation as the Maccabees, against all odds so bravely  led Kol Yisroel against the forces of assimilation which ultimately saw all Jews  rejoicing in the victory celebration of the first Chanukah.

The world’s Jews are again in grave existential peril as we are being overwhelmed by the forces of assimilation, so where are our Maccabees to lead us, now that we need them the most?

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