Jewish community Festival of Lights celebrates courage and faithfulness


The Mirror

On Tuesday night, Jewish families across Puget Sound lit the first candle of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights commemorating a miracle that occurred across the globe more than 2,000 years ago.

Chanukah is the eight day Jewish holiday celebrating the miracle of one night's worth of oil that burned for eight while Jews re-consecrated their temple following invasion and defilement by the Greeks.

After Alexander the Great died, the Greek empire was divided into provinces ruled by quarrelsome generals.

The Land of Israel was initially ruled by Ptolemy, from Egypt, and Jews under Ptolemaic reign were relatively autonomous. But over the course of 125 years, the generals governing Syria and Egypt fought for control of the area. Finally, in 198 BCE, the Seleucids, who controlled Syria under the leadership of Antiochus III, conquered the Ptolemies and Judea fell to Seleucidian rule.

Antiochus III initially granted the Jews a certain level of freedom, but, after losing a battle to the Romans, he began attempts to impose Hellenization within his empire as a way to solidify it. Still, Jews were able to resist. "(Antiochus III) didn't insist on cultural as well as political allegiance," said Rabbi Ted Stainman, of Bet Chaverim Community Synagogue of South King County.

Things changed when his son, Antiochus IV, came to power.

Antiochus IV forbid Jewish practices, like observing the Sabbath, studying Torah, and circumcision. He installed an alter to Zeus in the Jewish temple, where he also allowed the sacrifice of pigs and opened the shrine to non-Jews.

"(Antiochus IV) insisted on cultural allegiance," Stainman said. "Their test of political loyalty was cultural identity. They insisted the empire practice Greek customs and Greek culture and Greek religious traditions."

As Greek culture became more dominant, many in the Jewish community began to assimilate to protect their safety and livelihoods.

It wasn't long before the social tension became too great. As the Hellenistic influence became more rapid and far-reaching, elements of the Jewish community began to resist. It came to a head when a Greek official tried to force a Jewish priest named Mattathias to make a sacrifice to a pagan god. When Mattathias refused, another Jewish official stepped forward and offered to do it.

The first murder in the war of the Maccabees was Jew against Jew. Mattathias killed the Jewish official for bowing to Hellenistic cultural authority and attacked the Greek officials. In retaliation, Antiochus sent an army to punish the community, eventually pushing them back into the hills.

The Maccabees, a small group of Jewish resistors, fought back against the Greek army. Led by Mattathias's son Judah, they re-took Jerusalem all the way to the temple.

Because the temple had been defiled, it fell to the Jewish priests to re-cleanse and consecrate it so Jews could return to worship. They found one flask of oil that still bore the high priest's unbroken seal. The flask only held enough oil to burn for a night, but it lasted eight, giving the Jews time to cleanse the temple and make it holy again.

Today, Jews commemorate the miracle of the oil by lighting a Chanukah candle for each of the eight days. The observance celebrates the courage, faithfulness and perseverance of the Maccabees, who fought back and restored cultural and political autonomy to Judea.

Still, lost in history is how complicated the war was, how it pitted Jew against Jew, and how it took more than 30 years before the Greek rulers finally granted complete autonomy to Judea. "The Maccabees were able to defeat the Seleucids, but it was complicated. In doing so, they became a lot like the Seleucids," Stainman said. "Judaism was deeply influenced by contact with the Greeks."

Stainman said the lessons of history are present everywhere today, including the conflict between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. "We today are insisting on Western attitudes and Western cultural identity to show political allegiance," he said, adding that Western leaders are encountering resistance in the Islamic and Orthodox Jewish Middle East.

"The West is in a tremendous conflict with reactionary forces, who would say they're just trying to protect their way of life," he said. "We're using our standards to order the world. These are changes we think of as enlightened and progressive, but people there view them as destroying their way of life and authority."

Even within the Jewish community under Antiochus IV, there were those who opposed what the Maccabees were doing. While the Maccabees felt they were standing up for their beliefs and their culture, others saw the Maccabees' refusal to assimilate as reactionary. "(The Maccabees) didn't have universal support," Stainman said. "It almost started a civil war."

The dynamic between assimilation and cultural distinction can be seen today as Jews in the United States try to maintain their cultural distinctiveness while celebrating Chanukah in a country steeped in the Christian lore of Christmas.

Traditionally, Jews light candles in the menorah during the eight days of Chanukah, spend time with family and friends, play the dreidel game, eat latkes and exchange small gifts and candy.

"Chanukah is really a very small holiday. It's not one of the biggies in the year in terms of religious obligation," Stainman said. But because of its proximity to Christmas, and the cultural blow-out surrounding it, Chanukah has a tendency to be made into a bigger holiday than it traditionally is.

"That in itself is a process of assimilation," Stainman said. "If we lived in another culture that didn't celebrate Christmas, it'd be interested to see how Chanukah would be celebrated."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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