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Did the Maccabees really win?

Thursday, 29 November, 2018 - 11:45 pm

Did the Maccabees really win? Should they have? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens. Everything good and beautiful in Western culture (the world in any modern, real sense) has its roots in Greece. Art, poetry, Hippocrates, architecture, sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Can you think of anything more pleasant than a sound mind and body? I defy you.

Even the memory of the Maccabees is a tribute to Athens. Maccabiah, the sports competition that for decades has brought together Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek; the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem led –in large measure- to the Maccabean revolt. Every Jewish basketball team named the Maccabees - a name synonymous with Jewish pride – is a vindication of Athens over Jerusalem of the Greeks over the Maccabees. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but as stubborn a fact as a fact can be.
 
Do we not identify with sound-mind-sound-body? Is this not even a quest for most people? Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why then, do those who insist they are “secular” Jews, those who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews bring into their Temple, why do they celebrate Chanukah? Why then, in homes where every empirical vestige of Jewish identity and survival has been cleared from the home to a degree that would make a chametz-searching balabuste green with envy, why in these homes, where no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown is the menorah lit?
 
Yes, I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before that reality the Good Books spoke of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays -- will never be forgotten.
 
Chanukah makes no sense; even the Sages of the Talmud remark that from a legal, halachic standpoint, the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days etc. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized too well the threat not only of the malicious Greeks, but also of the theoretically benign Hellenists. And this devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. That sound body/mind was a connection between one and the other but offered no ladder to the soul. That without the strife of the spirit, the entrance of the soul into daily conscience, the body and mind are more at peace, like the animals in pasture, but void the purpose of He who created heaven and earth.
 
Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. Not then; as the menorah was being lit, cruse lasting eight days etc., (The fighting continued within earshot of the Temple Mount). Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.
 
But the Maccabees were not either; and that is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s too Jewish, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 
 
There is a future, foreseeable or not, when there will be no glitz to diminish the flame, only to add to it luster. Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame. A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waver.
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