You may have heard this cute saying among Jewish people describing the observance of many holidays: “They tried to kill us. We prevailed. Let’s eat.” There’s some truth to it. And it certainly describes the Chanukah story most of us learned growing up: In the second century BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian Greeks who tried to force the Jews to forget their core values and belief in one God, and accept Greek culture. Against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the service of God.
That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. And, in my mind, it’s not the most important truth. Here’s what most of us weren’t taught:
The cosmopolitan nature of Greek culture intrigued many Jews. It was modern, sophisticated, intellectual. But it also focused on physical pleasures and crass entertainment – hedonistic parties, naked wrestling matches and the like – which were in direct conflict with core Jewish values. As some Jews started to enjoy the Greek ways, Jewish leaders pushed back, worried about assimilation and the loss of the fundamental teachings of the Torah. (“Torah” literally means “instruction” or “guidance,” and contains the body of wisdom and law in Jewish scripture.)
The more Jews who assimilated, the greater the danger of permanent harm to the spirit and existence of the Jewish people. The Maccabees sided with those who wanted to maintain Jewish values. Violence broke out and the Maccabees took power. Sadly, they became corrupt and created lasting political divisions. It was a very bad time for the Jews.
At Chanukah, we celebrate the Maccabees’ remarkable feats against a huge military, as we
should. But I believe the civil war of ideas among Jews that led to violence back then is what’s relevant, and troubling, to us today. Israelis have never been more divided over social and political issues than they are now. And there’s a growing distance between most American Jews and an Israel that doesn’t look like what its founders envisioned.
Our people’s greatest threat isn’t external; it’s within. This is a critical lesson for anyone aspiring to leadership. We need to remind ourselves of our powerful shared values, which are far more significant than our many differences.