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The Secret of Jewish Survival
by Michael L. Feshbach

Lighting the menorahThe Maccabees not only won a great military victory; they came up with the quintessential survival strategy that has kept us from extinction.

Every Chanukah we thank God for the miracle of the season. But what was the miracle? Simply this: the Maccabees and their legacy survived.

This is a miracle, you ask? The parting of the Red Sea—now that was a miracle! The manna from heaven? That was a miracle too. But survival—the most basic of human instincts? Granted, Jewish survival is a great accomplishment, given our history of persecution. But why single out this one event, call it a miracle, and celebrate it for eight days every year for the past two thousand or so years.

Simply because our ancestors not only won a great military victory; they came up with the quintessential survival strategy that has kept us from extinction ever since.

Consider: of the many ancient peoples that went up against Greek civilization, we Jews alone have lived to tell the tale. The Edomites, gone; the Phoenicians, history; the ancient Egyptians, a pale memory.

Why couldn’t these other nations compete with the Greeks? Because Greek culture was all the rage—sophisticated, attractive, excelling in the arts and sports. They had the Olympics. Travel and trade opportunities abounded. Big business flourished. To be all that you could be, Greece was your ticket, assuming you had the drachmas.

And this very cosmopolitan society was willing to accept the Jews. Many Jews, tempted by the “in” society, reasoned, “We’re not really all that different. Well, we do circumcise our males, so they look different when competing nude in athletic games…maybe we don’t really need that ceremony. Besides, we’ve heard that doctors in Jaffa can undo or reverse circumcisions.

“We believe in one God, and they believe in many. But they have a chief god called Zeus. Well…we could pray to one god at a time, couldn’t we? We wouldn’t want to be rude and not join them in the prayer at the opening of sports events.”

And in line with these assimilationist sentiments, many urban Jews taught their children Greek before Hebrew and built a Jewish community center in Jerusalem that combined study and service with sports—modeled on the Greek gymnasium, which, after all, had religious overtones.

When more traditionally minded religious Jews rose up in protest, the assimilationists called in the Greek authorities to intervene. It was a colossal mistake: King Antiochus Epiphanes IV seized the opportunity to outlaw the practice of Judaism altogether and install statues of Zeus and himself in the Jerusalem Temple.

Now, with the defiled Temple out of service, Jewish festivals went unobserved, even the festival of Sukkot, when Jewish farmers offered praise and gratitude to God for a good harvest. Not only was this an agricultural gamble; it was an affront to the Almighty!

And that’s when it happened. In the small village of Modi’in, the Maccabean elder, Mattathias, caught sight of a Jew bowing down to an idol and struck him dead. This act set off the revolt against the Greeks. Using guerilla tactics, the outnumbered farmer-warriors, led by Mattathias’ son Judah, defeated the Greeks, restored the Temple, and observed a belated Sukkot in the month of Kislev for eight days. Judah did not survive the extended conflict, so his brother Jonathan took over. Then, in 140 B.C.E., their brother Simon established an independent kingdom, giving rise to the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted until 37 B.C.E.

Secure in their independence, these Hasmonean kings adopted Greek-style names, and their Jewish subjects followed suit, once again imitating the Greeks. This time, however, imitation did not threaten, but rather ensured Jewish survival.

In the years following their victory, when the Jews were able to celebrate Sukkot on the right date (in Tishrei), they added a new, eight-day festival in Kislev, the month of their military triumph, to celebrate it. The very notion of creating a religious holiday to commemorate a military victory was a Greek idea: what Jew had ever heard of celebrating a holiday that wasn’t commanded in the Torah? Other Greek ideas also crept into Jewish thought—ideas that would later become central to our tradition, such as life after death and the notion of a “soul.” (Some of these concepts may have had earlier roots in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but their shape and form as we encounter them in post-biblical Judaism was decisively influenced by this encounter with Hellenism.)

You might ask, if the Maccabees, those bulwarks against assimilation, succumbed to Greek styles and influence, then how were they any different from the pro-Greek Jews they had once so violently opposed?

The difference was this: The Maccabees, although eventually open to the world around them, were Jews first. Their being selective in their openness guaranteed rather than threatened Jewish survival. The assimilationists knew no boundaries; they would have traded Zeus for God and trophies for circumcision, discarding the ancient mark of the covenant of our people. In doing so they would have shared the fate of the Amorites, the Edomites, and every other ancient people who swallowed Greek culture whole and ended up digesting themselves. Had we embraced total assimilation, we would have vanished as a separate people.

We also would have fared no better had the Maccabees’ answer to Greek culture been one of total rejection. For Judaism to remain vibrant and relevant, the strong appeal of the Greek way had to be addressed. The purists of ancient Egypt chose to wall off their culture, resulting in its demise. Its youths flocked to Greek mystery cults and eventually abandoned the ways of their ancestors.

The genius of the Maccabees was in hewing to a narrow path between the twin perils of assimilation on the one hand and isolation on the other. This approach of preserving the old while being open to the new would become the foundational model of our Reform Movement in the early 19th century. From then until now, we Reform Jews have strived to maintain a state of equilibrium, preserving our distinct Jewish identity while at the same time engaging with the majority culture.

This balancing act is the secret of Jewish survival, and its sanctification as a religious festival is the miracle of Chanukah.

And that’s why some cultural borrowing from our neighbors may actually be in line with the message of Chanukah—so long as it is an accommodation made in the context of Jewish affirmation rather than a blurring of boundaries that may lead to the dissolution of our identity as a distinct minority.

Thus the message of Chanukah remains the same today as it has for centuries: Jewish survival in the midst of a tempting majority culture. We affirm our Jewish distinctiveness anew every time the Chanukah candles glow in our dorm rooms and our dwelling places, our synagogues and our souls. This is, indeed, an ongoing miracle... the light of Jewish life still shining after all of these centuries... Still Jewish. Still Jewish.

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach serves Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Union for Reform Judaism.