This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: Can we apply the lessons learned from the Maccabees in the story of Chanukah (to have courage, to stand up and fight, not to bow to outside pressures) to Israel's current struggle for its rights and independence?
The simple answer to this question would seem to be an obvious yes; of course we should learn from the heroes of our past. Upon further consideration, though, the answer may be more complicated that you might first expect. You outline the lessons that we might learn but are these really the lessons – or primary lessons – of the story? The fact is that the lessons that are actually to be learned may really be quite different. The current struggle in Israel is, of course, comparable to any battle in which those who fought demonstrated courage and stood up to fight for what they believed in and in that way we can clearly, of course, also learn from the Maccabees as you properly identify. Yet, in a more specific sense, the story of Chanukah actually reflected, in many ways, a different type of conflict than the one we are presently experiencing in Israel. In that regard, the lessons may be different than you might think.
First of all, in essence the battle of Chanukah actually began as a civil war; the Syrian Greeks only became involved at the request of Hellenists Jews who wished to introduce more Hellenist ideas into Jewish culture. This leads to the second major distinction between the present situation in Israel and the battle of Chanukah. This latter battle was an idealistic one, not nationalistic. While the present conflict in Israel does include some religious overtones, the essence of the battle is one between nations or ethnic groupings. In the case of Chanukah, the essential battle was really within one national identity, the Jews; the conflict was over which ideology should be dominant within the Jewish society. As such, when you present one lesson of Chanukah to be that we should not bow to outside pressure, while this is true, it was a different type of outside pressure to which the Maccabees stood up. The challenge for Israel today may, in part, revolve around the question of how to stand up to outside political and national pressure. The fight of the Maccabees was against a pressure of an outside value system that was influencing Jewish society and while it became a physical war, its essence was in the mind.
There is indeed a further lesson, that we can learn from the Maccabees, that is applicable to modern day Israel but it is not one that directly connects with the present nationalistic struggle tied to conflict with the Arab world. What the Maccabees also stand for is the need to maintain the uniqueness of our Jewish identity, being and meaning. This is not necessarily to say that there is nothing within the outside world from which we can benefit but the need is to declare what is primary. The battle of Chanukah was in regard to what would be primary – Torah or Hellenism? The Hellenists still wanted some traditional Jewish practices but only when they could also pass the sanction of Hellenism. For the Maccabees, Torah was primary and it was any Hellenist ideas that had to pass the test of Torah. This is still an important lesson for Israel today in its greater struggle in its broadest sense of finding its national identity – but it may not be a lesson of which you were thinking.