On Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed article titled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” in which Michael David Lucas—a novelist who this year decided to do some cursory research on the subject—reports discovering that the holiday commemorates a war between radical Hellenizers and those who wanted to preserve Judaism. The author cites Hasmonean efforts to repress Hellenistic Jews while making no mention of the persecution of Jews at the hands of the Syrian Greeks (or “Romans,” as Lucas had it before a correction was published). Jonathan Tobin explains what he gets wrong:
Lucas concludes that . . . he would have identified more with those city-dwellers embracing Hellenistic practices, like eating pork, than with the efforts of “rural religious zealots.” He sees the Maccabean victory as one of “fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism.” Lucas seems to see the victorious Jews as the moral equivalent of red-state evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump, and their opponents as people, well, like him, who have mixed feelings about circumcision, don’t keep kosher, and support Bernie Sanders, whom, [he claims], the Maccabees would have hated.
But the point of the festival isn’t one of warfare against less observant Jews. . . . [W]hat the Jews fighting the Greeks wanted was to be left alone to worship in freedom; [they faced] a foe who didn’t merely disdain their faith, but was actively seeking to repress it. . . . Lucas may think that the Hellenizers were defending diversity, but they—and perhaps the author—were actually too narrow-minded to tolerate those who think or worship differently.
Hanukkah is about the struggle of Jews, both then and now, to refuse to bow down to the idols of popular culture. The miracle is not merely the one about the oil lasting eight days, but the ability of a small ethno-religious [group] both to resist the forces that sought to eradicate their existence and to preserve the flame of Jewish civilization. Hellenism threatened to wipe out a moral vision of the world rooted in the Torah, as well as the autonomy of a small people. Had the Hellenizers, for whom Lucas says he will say a prayer, prevailed, it would not have been a triumph for individual freedom but one in which the right to faith or of a small group to defend its own culture and identity would have been extinguished.
If you can’t sympathize with that cause, then don’t blame Judaism, Hanukkah, or some foolish desire, as Lucas puts it, to “beat Santa.”