in their days and ours: the chanukah legacy

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    In Their Days and Ours: The Chanukah Legacy
    by Larry Domnitch
    Dec 07, '04 / 24 Kislev 5765

    What are Jews celebrating on Chanukah?

    Is it about the wars; the victory of the few over the many? The amazing Maccabean victories over Greek armies were battles in a drawn-out conflict that would last for decades after the Chanukah saga. There would be future defeats, as well.

    Perhaps Jews are celebrating their freedom from oppressive rule. But freedom was only temporary, as the Jews would eventually face persecution under Antiochus' successor.

    Or maybe it is the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem that Jews celebrate. However, the Temple was eventually destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

    In the days of antiquity, following the conquest of the world by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, each nation had accepted each others' deities and morals as prescribed by the universal creed of the day, Hellenism. However, the Jews tenaciously clung to their Torah and were the exception to the universal global trend.

    Their unique practices were largely tolerated for the next one hundred and fifty years, until Antiochus Epiphanes IV became emperor. Antiochus, with the encouragement of Jewish adherents to Hellenism, embarked upon a policy of forcing that universal ideology upon the Jews. Jewish rites were prohibited and idolatrous practices were mandated. Those in violation were severely punished.

    If the Jews simply acquiesced and abandoned their heritage, they could have spared themselves much suffering. However, many chose a different path - that of defiance. Some ran and hid in the hills, others in the corners of their homes, and they continued to keep their traditions. The Talmud mentions some who had defied authority: Chanah and her sons who, with their mother's support, refused to bow to the emperor, resulting in their own deaths; the elderly sage Elazar who, in front of a large audience refused to partake of a food that merely resembled pig, and as a result was executed. His parting words were, "I will leave an example of strength, to die willingly, with courage, for the perfect and holy Torah." This was not the response that Antiochus had expected.

    Resistance to religious persecution is central to the theme of Chanukah. During that era, a precedent was set for future generations of Jews who would look to their example.

    When Roman armies first entered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Jews were ready to die rather than participate in a pagan rite when ordered to do so by the Roman general Pompey. Ten years later, when the Roman emperor Caligula demanded that Jews act as all peoples and worship his image, Jews again were ready to defy the emperor, regardless of the consequences. Over one hundred and fifty years later, when the Roman emperor Hadrian sought to turn Jerusalem into a pagan colony, again the Jews resisted. This time, they organized a full-scale revolt, under the leadership of Simon Bar Kochba, against the mighty Roman Empire.

    During Christian rule, for over fifteen hundred years, Jews endured all forms of persecution, from blood libel accusations to inquisitions to massacres. As during the times of the Maccabees, they resisted, but could have been spared the endless suffering if they capitulated to Christian demands.

    In Islamic countries over the centuries, Jews chose to live humiliated as an underclass of dhimmi, often persecuted, but willingly accepting their predicament rather than submit to conversion.

    The examples are far too numerous to count. Two thousand years of history is replete with sacrifice and martyrdom.

    The notion of self-sacrifice has been glorified in Jewish history. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva defied the Roman emperor Hadrian's ban on Torah study; and his martyrdom is but one example. During the era of Inquisition rule, the author of the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Joseph Karo spoke of martyrdom as the most sanctified of acts. Under Czar Nicholas I of Russia, tens of thousands of young Jewish recruits in the Czar's army faced enormous pressure, including torture, to accept baptism. Their brave resistance prompted the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, to compare their suffering to that of the Jews under the rule of Antiochus. The Tzemach Tzedek considered these boys, known as "Cantonists", to be the greatest heroes among the Jews.

    Yet, why rejoice if so much of Chanukah and its legacy are linked to suffering and persecution? Perhaps Chanukah should be a gloomy and depressing holiday.

    What is celebrated is the fact that the sacrifices by so many during the time of the Maccabees, and over the millennia as well, were not in vain. By acknowledging their sacrifices, and that there are things worth sacrificing for, we are celebrating life and the endurance of the Jews as a people.

    There are special messages we can glean from Chanukah in our own times.

    Within the confines of free and open societies, Chanukah is also a most appropriate time to ask what being a Jew means, and how we can use the freedoms with which we are blessed to perpetuate that eternal legacy.

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