Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday whose Hebrew dates are 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet, begins this year on the evening of December 11. It commemorates an ancient victory at once military, political, social, and religious. Militarily, the victory, which took place in Judea in 165 B.C.E., saw the routing of the forces of the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes by a rebel Jewish army under the leadership of Judah Maccabee. Politically, it ushered in a prolonged period of independent Jewish rule under the Hasmonean dynasty. Socially, it betokened the triumph of traditionalist Jews over the assimilating Hellenizers in their midst. Religiously, it was marked by the re-conversion of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which under the Hellenes had been turned into a place of pagan idolatry, to the worship of the One God of the Jews.
All over the world, Hanukkah today is celebrated in homes and synagogues by the lighting of lights that on successive nights increase in number from one to eight, by the reciting of special prayers and blessings, and by the singing of songs of praise to the Guardian of Israel Who delivered “the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the wicked into the hands of the righteous.” The nightly ceremony recalls the legendary act of divine intervention that caused a minute amount of purified oil, left behind by the marauding pagans, to burn for eight days in the reclaimed Temple menorah, whose history Daniel Sperber recounts.
The bitter contest between the Hebrews and the Greeks has spawned a large literature about the divergent “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” perspectives on enduring issues of morality and theology. In time, Christian writers would adjoin key elements of “Hebraism” to their own faith for the purpose of distinguishing it, too, from values and ideas attributable to “Hellenism”; one such writer was the 19th-century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold. In the 20th-century, the philosopher Leo Strauss developed his own understanding of the gulf between these two ways of looking at the world. As against such thinkers, the classicist Louis Feldman suggests that the sharpening of seemingly irreconcilable opposites—Hebraic obedience vs. Hellenistic intelligence, Hellenistic reason vs. Hebraic revelation, and so forth—has sometimes been pursued at the expense of a more nuanced and truer picture.
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