5757 - #4

The Battle of Chanukah

Clearly, the Torah tradition favours tolerance. Al tadin et chavercha ad shetagia limkomo, "do not judge your fellow human until you have managed to try to put yourself in his shoes."1 Even towards a transgressor, the tradition is straightforward: any Jewish court which convicted and put to death even one person in 70 years is castigated as an abusive court by the Mishnah2. At the centre of the Jewish view of tolerance must lie the recognition that G-d's final evaluation of a human being's behaviour may be the exact opposite of what was thought of within earth's religious circles.3 No one has the exclusive possession of truth, for only Hashem is infallible. We have to be open minded because even the simplest truths - the "plain" meaning, the peshat - in any verse of scripture could come from any source at any time in history, at any place, in any country.4 Kabail et haemet me mee she'omroh, be prepared to admit to the truth from whoever presents it.5
The only motivation Jews have to possibly harm others is self defence. Habo lehargechah hashkem lehorgoh, if one comes to kill you, rise up to kill him.
6 We are not commanded to make the world Jewish although Rambam does maintain, in reference to the Seven Noachide Commands, that we are obligated to make the world safe for civilization.7 We don't proselytize. Even a woman captured as booty, as a yefat to'ar, cannot be forced to accept Judaism. We are not commissioned by G-d to act as His policemen. We do not compel observance through physical force. Our repugnance for the loss of any human life is clearly marked. Killing one person is equated to the destruction of the world just as saving the life of one person is compared to saving the whole world.8 Any priest who commits manslaughter can no longer serve as a priest.9 Even though King David fought his necessary battles to defend the Jewish people, G-d did not allow him to build the Temple because his hands were full of blood."10
It is, thus, not surprising that within our tradition as a nation, we do not celebrate military holidays. Chanukah is described in our liturgy as a victory which allowed us to practice our religion and to study the Torah. It is the ability to observe Torah and be Jews, not the defeat of our enemies, that we commemorate. The Jewish hellenizers, desirous of power,
11 lobbied the Syrian Greeks and received a mandate to impose Greek policies and mete out the death penalty to any Jew who would dare keep Shabbos, mila (circumcision), etc. The Jews had to risk their lives for the right to study Torah. This is the background of Chanukah and it celebrates, not military success but, the survival of the Jewish people and their traditions against all odds. War was undertaken solely because there was no other option.
It is thus most surprising to find opinions that present the Maccabean rebellion as an attack upon the liberal Jews of that era who, like reform Jews today, were simply seeking accommodation with the enlightened culture of the day. The Maccabees, these opinions claim, applied physical force to impose Torah upon others, assassinating enough liberal Jews of the era to wipe out the reform movement of the day. How removed this behaviour is from the above noted Torah attitude of tolerance? Yet, the Book of Maccabees itself does note that, with victory, the Maccabees forced Jews who were uncircumcised to have a bris mila. Those who wish to present the Maccabees as super zealots bent on imposing their views on innocent others do have their source.
The strange thing about the forces of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, was that it was never openly stated, straightforwardly, that attacks on the Jews were inherently desired. There was always the necessary expression of a moral reason. Haman described the Jews as mortal enemies of the kingdom whose insistent differences threatened the greater unity. The Hellenists claimed an attempt to end the backward domination of our people by an archaic system (i.e. Torah) which prevented Jews from moving ahead. There was always the reason that made persecution the unfortunate only solution; tolerance, the persecutor argued, would only lead to greater tragedy. For everyone's benefit, the Jews and their traditions had to be suppressed even by force.
Yet once these persecutors are defeated, they are the first to cry for tolerance, the first to use the very rights they ignored to protect themselves. Was there any greater chutzpah shown then when the leader of the Chicago Nazis cried "Freedom of Speech" in order to allow his thugs to march in Skokie? While it is true that we must be tolerant of others, any time a persecutor arises who attacks our right to exist as humans, or as Jews, this persecutor and his canon cannot be tolerated. Tolerance can only exist between groups within a framework of mutual respect. When one group, however, is intolerant, it cannot be allowed to oppress others when it has strength, and then call for tolerance from the other group in times of weakness. The Maccabees did not begin the battle but once the battle was ensued, there could be no retreat. The Maccabees could not allow this very cry of tolerance - ignored by the persecutor - to be used to defend this vanquished persecutor and thereby allow the persecutor to re-gain strength and to persecute again. The Hellenists already demonstrated that they did not wish to simply live with personal freedom but that they desired to destroy Judaism. Applying the Torah's ethic of tolerance, at this point, would be a tolerance for a view that, ultimately, wished to destroy Torah. Habo lehargechah, it is coming to kill you. Thus, in battle, the Maccabees forced circumcision. This Hellenism showed that it was a murderer - and the Maccabees had to kill it, in self-defence. Tolerance is fundamental within Torah - but not at the expense of life.
How convenient to turn to the consequently forced circumcisions and describe the Maccabees as equally intolerant? How convenient to then make a connection to Orthodox Jews today and extend this attack? Indeed there are always super zealots, such as Yigal Amir, who mis-apply Torah in their desire to achieve what is, ultimately, their own ends. To colour the Maccabees in the same light, though, is preposterous. The tradition has established Chanukah as a spiritual holiday of rescue. To claim that this holiday masks the mass murder of open minded individuals is a tragic mis-construction of facts.
History can be read in so many different ways to explain and justify one's view. Haman could be described as having his reason for attacking the Jews; he, it could be argued, thus had his reason for intolerance too. There are no doubt those who, in the future, will describe the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as an attack by terrorists against an army of soldiers who were attempting to establish law & order. Even Hitler's point of view will, no doubt, be understood: in his mind, the Jews were actually the aggressors and dangerous to all of mankind. Hitler was just attempting to end the Jewish conspiracy to take over the entire world. So, too, Chanukah could be seen as the celebration by Orthodox Jews of the murder of more progressive Jewish elements who were attempting to work out a modus vivendi so as to get along with the government in power. Yet, in the story of Purim as in the story of Chanukah, the Jews did only act in self-defence after they were attacked. They did not just project a reason for intolerance. It is not simply their point of view that has to be understood, but the facts. The Torah's value of tolerance demands reason and evidence when, unfortunately, consideration has to be given to supplant this value. Unfortunately, the initial intolerance of the Hellenists provided the Maccabees with their necessary path of battle; and the intolerant Hellenists could not be allowed then to cry: "tolerance - so that we can regroup our forces to attack you again."

Rabbi Asher Turin
and Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 Mishnah Avot 2:4.

2 T.B. Makkot 7a.

3 See T.B. Baba Basra 10b.

4 See Rashbam, Bereishit 37:2.

5 Rambam, Introduction to Avot (Shemona Perakim).

6 T.B. Sanhedrin 72a.

7 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:10.

8 T.B. Sanhedrin 37a.

9 See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 128:35.

10 Divrei Hayamim I 22:8.

11 And, according to historians, tax revenue.

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