Hanukkah epitomizes that famous Jewish holiday mantra: they tried to kill us, we won let's eat. What's interesting is that while other festivals come with a Rabbi-approved story to remind us of our ancestors' triumphs over adversity (think Purim's tales of Esther's trials, and Passover's blood-soaked, plague-infested Haggadah), Hanukkah does not. It's tempting to take Hanukkah's notable lack of mandatory reading as an inviting cue to skip straight to the food. But... I think the Maccabees' hard-won victory - and the real lesson therein - deserve our attention.
(I hear your groan of despair; I know how good the food is. We'll get there, I promise.)
To make a very long story short: the kingdom of Judea was conquered by Greeks, under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Jerusalem’s second Temple was looted and ransacked; an altar to the Greek god Zeus was erected, on which pigs were sacrificed. Services were stopped, brit milah (ritual circumcision) was outlawed, and Jews were forbidden from learning and teaching their holy Torah, keeping Shabbat, and from practicing Judaism. Matityahu and his sons – including the infamous Judah – rose up to take back their land, religion and Temple. Careful military campaigns by the Maccabees small army beat the huge Greek forces, and the Temple was rededicated – with the bonus burning oil miracle thrown in case anyone doubted God’s hand in the victory.
The thing is, there is a book written about the Maccabee battles. Somewhat unimaginatively known as the Book of Maccabees, it was penned by contemporary Jewish scholars - but didn't quite make the cut into our canonized, complete Bible. Historians have posited myriad explanations as to why, and here, I'd like to offer another.
In campaigning so forcefully against the Greeks and their lifestyle, the Maccabees appear to have missed out on something crucial. The invading Greeks had their own religion, sciences and philosophies – including hedonism. Hedonism is the active pursuit of pleasure, and the belief that the goal of human life is to live as pleasurably as possible. Exquisite art, decadent food, eye-catching architecture, luxurious jewelry and clothing and decor: the Hellenist world was one of unrivaled opulence. We need only look at the sculptures, jewels and mosaics leftover from their empire to see the excessive wealth in which they reveled.
The Greeks' tyranny - so well disguised by their beauty - forbade the Jews that which they valued most: spirituality. The Maccabees rose up and rebelled against everything the Greeks represented, furiously eschewing their hedonistic ways. They strove to eradicate all things Greek, and in doing so, possibly forgot something fundamental to Judaism.
Jews are not monks. We do not believe in physical deprivation - in fact, quite the opposite. We embrace physicality and beauty – but unlike hedonist Hellenists, it's not our end-goal. Rather, Judaism takes beauty and aims to enhance it by adding spirituality. That's why we welcome Shabbat with wine - a symbol of wealth and joy - and sanctify it with the Kiddush prayer. It's why the etrog we use on Sukkot is called pri etz hadar (literally the fruit of a beautiful tree), and people spend huge amounts of time and money selecting the most perfect fruit they can find. It's why the menorah from which the Maccabees witnessed the eight-day miracle was made of solid gold and decadently decorated with flowers, and Judah and his family - as priests and High Priests - were privileged with clothes adorned with golden pomegranates and silver bells and breastplates encrusted with precious jewels. It's why Queen Esther is described as a woman of beautiful appearance, and why there is even a blessing said on seeing an exceptionally beautiful person.
In totally rejecting all things Greek, the Maccabees were in fact pushing away one of Judaism's most fundamental beliefs: that our world is beautiful, and that we should enjoy and sanctify that beauty. An absolute rejection of everything the Greeks represented is also a rejection of the appreciation and holiness found when our world's physical beauty is combined with spirituality. Hanukkah celebrates the story of a physical war fought for spirituality, so we announce our spiritual victory with physical symbols. That’s why we buy the most beautiful Hanukkah menorahs we can find, fill them with glowing candles, and celebrate our continued existence with our families and friends around us.
After all, we need only pick up a crispy, hot latke or bite into a fluffy, soft donut to acknowledge that the world is a truly beautiful place.