Don’t Despair: Political Oppression Leads To Religious Revival – OpEd


When Jews celebrate Hanukah (in 2022 December 18-25), I hope that both Jews and Muslims will also remember all oppressed religious communities, such as the Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province, and the bold women of Irah who risk their lives daily protesting government persecution; because Hanukah teaches the very important lesson that faith and hope in the long run overcome nasty politics and politicians.

Hanukah should be a special festival for Muslims and Jews because Hanukah (Hebrew for Dedication) refers both to: The rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem after it was profaned in 168 BCE by an idol installed in it by the Syrian Greek king Antiochus IV; and the dedication and valor of all those who joined in the resistance to the attempt by the political ruling powers to force the Jews to abandon their God given religion, and conform to Greek forms of worship and culture. Abandoning circumcision was one example.

Those who resisted were Muslims (Arabic for faithful followers of the one and only God’s will) and their dedication eventually led to religious freedom and national independence for the Jews living in the Land of Israel. 

Hanukah commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem temple by Judah Maccabee in 164 B.C.E. In the popular imagination this festival marks the Jewish victory over the Seleucid  Greeks, the regaining of religious freedoms, and the rise of a new independent state in Judea—the Hasmonean kingdom.

However, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, our main historical sources for the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath, make it clear that the rededication of the temple did not end the conflicts between the Seleucid forces and the Jews led by the Maccabean brothers, and was not the starting point of Hasmonean rule. 

Instead, the beginning of the Hasmonean era can be dated to 142 B.C.E.—twenty-two years after Hanukah—with the appointment by the Seleucid King of Simon, Judah Maccabee’s last surviving brother, the High Priest.

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Prophet Muhammad and his followers by the great majority of the pagan Arabs in Makka.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible. The following is the history of Hanukah from the original sources:

“After King Seleucus died, Antiochus (who called himself  Epiphanes -God manifested) became king. Jason became High Priest by corrupt means.  He went to king Antiochus and offered him a large bribe (to be appointed High Priest) and an additional bribe for the authority to establish a (sports) stadium where young men could train; and to enroll the people (his supporters) in Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch. (2 Maccabees 4:7-9)

“The king gave his approval, and as soon as Jason took over the office of High Priest, he made the people of Jerusalem change to the Greek way of life. He began by abolishing the favors that John had secured for the Jews from previous Syrian kings. Jason also did away with our Jewish customs and introduced new customs that were contrary to our Law. 

“With great enthusiasm he built a stadium near the Temple hill and led our finest young men to adopt the Greek custom of participating in athletic events (naked). Because of the unrivaled wickedness of Jason, that ungodly and illegitimate High Priest, the craze for the Greek way of life and for foreign customs reached such a point that even the priests lost all interest in their sacred duties. 

“They lost interest in the Temple services and neglected the sacrifices. They would rush off to take part in the (naked) games that were forbidden by our Law. They did not care about anything their ancestors had valued; they prized only Greek honors. And this turned out to be the source of all their troubles, for the very people whose ways they admired and whose customs they tried to imitate became their enemies and oppressed them.” (2 Maccabees 4:10-16)

Things got worse when Menelaus offered the king an even larger bribe, and was appointed High Priest in place of Jason, who was forced to flee. “Menelaus stayed on in his position because of the greed of those in power. He grew more evil every day and became the worst enemy of his own people.” (2 Maccabees 4:50)

A few years later when Antiochus was fighting a war against Egypt: “a false report began to spread that Antiochus had died” (5:5) and many Jews celebrated. “When the news of what had happened in Jerusalem reached Antiochus, he thought the whole country of Judea was in revolt, and he became as furious as a wild animal. So he left Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm, giving his men orders to cut down without mercy everyone they met and to slaughter anyone they found hiding in the houses. They murdered everyone—men and women, boys and girls; even babies were butchered.” (2 Maccabees 5:11-13)

“But Antiochus was still not satisfied. He even dared to enter the holiest Temple in the world, guided by Menelaus, who had become a traitor both to his religion and to his people. With his filthy and unholy hands, Antiochus grabbed  the sacred objects of worship, and the gifts which other kings had given to increase the glory and honor of the Temple. He was so thrilled with his conquest that he did not realize that the Lord had let his holy Temple be defiled because the sin of the people of Jerusalem had made him angry for a while. 

“If the people of Jerusalem had not been involved in so many sins, Antiochus would have been punished immediately and prevented from taking such a foolish action. But the Lord did not choose his people for the sake of his Temple; he established his Temple for the sake of his people. So the Temple shared in the people’s suffering but also later shared in their prosperity. The Lord abandoned it when he became angry, but restored it when his anger had cooled down. (2 Maccabees 5:15-20)

“Not long after that, the king sent an Antiochian elder to force the Jews to abandon their religion and the customs of their ancestors. He was also to defile their Temple by dedicating it to the Olympian god Zeus. The oppression was harsh and almost intolerable. Gentiles filled the Temple with drinking parties and all sorts of immorality. They even had intercourse with prostitutes there. Forbidden objects were brought into the Temple, and the altar was covered with detestable sacrifices (pigs) prohibited by our Law. 

“It was impossible to observe the Sabbath, to celebrate any of the traditional festivals, or even so much as to admit to being a Jew. Each month when the king’s birthday was celebrated,  Jews were compelled by brute force to eat the intestines of sacrificial animals. Then, during the festival in honor of the wine god Dionysus, they were required to wear ivy wreaths on their heads and march in procession. The neighboring Greek cities were also instructed to require Jews to eat the sacrifices; they were told to put to death every Jew who refused to adopt the Greek way of life. It was easy to see that hard times were ahead. 

“For example, two women were arrested for having their babies circumcised. They were paraded around the city with their babies hung from their breasts; then they were thrown down from the city wall. On another occasion, Philip was told that some Jews had gathered in a nearby cave to observe the Sabbath in secret. Philip attacked and burned them all alive. They had such respect for the Sabbath that they would not fight to defend themselves.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-11)

The success of the Maccabees in attaining religious freedom and political independence by defeating several Syrian Greek armies that were sent to suppress their rebellion; was two generations later, tragically transformed into a failure, when the Hasmonean dynasty they had established became politically corrupt and oppressive. 

Thus we learn the truth of the saying: Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In today’s world of fanaticism and extremism the words of Al-Ghazali, a 12th century Persian Muslim theologian, need to be repeated by all the world’s religious and political leaders: “Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see – Egoism, Arrogance, Conceit, Selfishness, Greed, Lust, Intolerance, Anger, Lying, Cheating, Gossiping and Slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then you will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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