Chanukah and the Modern State of Israel

            Despite the fact that Chanukah (the Festival of Lights) is considered a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, it’s possibly the most significant Biblical holiday to the modern state of Israel.  The Maccabean victory over the Greeks in 164 BCE, celebrated by Chanukah holiday, ushered in a 100 year period of independence for the nation of Israel.  This period ended with the Roman conquest in 63 BCE.  Independence was not realized again until the recent 1948.  Regardless, large Jewish populations remained in Israel through the 3rd century CE and occasionally rebelled against the Roman occupation, most notably in 66-70 and 131-135, but each time ending in significant defeat.  Following these periods Jews migrated to the four corners of the earth, unified only by religion and traditions, maintained by the Rabbis.  Because Jews lived at the mercy of national rulers, through the Rabbis, Jews utilized the principle of appeasement to protect their communities.  This often meant paying huge sums to rulers, moving from territories, accepting severe restrictions upon lifestyles and occupations to simply survive.  Ironically, modern Israel, the nation of Jews, presents a very different face of Judaism, better expressed through the Chanukah rebellion. 

            Jews remained as cloistered communities until the 18th century with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe.  For the first time Jews were allowed to become citizens of the nations in which they resided.  As they did the principles of the Enlightenment began to influence Jewish religious thought, permitting Jews to assimilate into larger society while they maintained certain limited religious observances unique to their faith.  This allowed Jews of Western and Central Europe to flourish in the rapidly changing societies.  Eastern Europe, however, was still locked in by the medieval Russian Empire where most Jews lived.  But the Enlightenment ideas infiltrated some of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.  This occurred simultaneous to the rise of Socialist ideas in Russia in the mid to late 19th century.  While Jews were experiencing increasing freedom and prosperity in Western Europe, the Jews of Eastern Europe were heavily discriminated against.  Some of these Jews began to write about the need to find a permanent national home, and the most likely place was Palestine (Israel). 

            In the late 19th century as persecution increased in the Russian Empire, some “enlightened” Jews from Russia immigrated to Palestine.  The community grew from 25,000 in 1881 to 100,000 by 1920, later leading to the establishment of the modern nation.  Most of these Jews were unique.  They tended to be secular.  Why?  The ultra-religious Jews of Eastern Europe believed only the coming of the Messiah would usher in the return of the Jews to the promised land, and thus most refused to come.  In Western Europe, where Judaism was more moderate, most Jews were finding success in assimilating into Western culture and had no desire to relocate to a more primitive land.  The only group taking advantage of the settlement of Palestine were the “enlightened” Jews of Eastern Europe, influenced by secularism and socialism.  They rejected many of the values of the rabbis, and saw themselves as direct descendants of the Maccabees of the Chanukah era.  These groups valued nationalism, military training, land development and practical skills, most of which were absent from Jewish history following Jewish dispersion to the nations in the early centuries.  Consequently, today in Israel, most Israelis are secular and have little use for the rabbinic traditions developed during the time of Jewish dispersion around the world.

            However, that doesn’t mean the Jews of Israel are not spiritual.  Many, especially the young, search for deeper meaning beyond a national identity.  But for many rabbinic values seem irrelevant and defeatist.  Interestingly, Messianic Judaism (Jews who believe in Jesus while maintaining Jewish identity), which is growing quickly in Israel, is a faith that essentially disappeared when Jews were forcibly relocated in the first two centuries of the common era.  Hence, while Messianic Judaism is still intertwined in the minds of most Israelis with the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, it is a unique form of Judaism, not directly connected to the traditions of the Rabbis, but more in line with the Judaism of the Maccabees - a form of Judaism reflecting both a national and messianic hope.  As Christians continue to show support for Israel and the Jewish people, the barrier of prejudice against Jesus diminishes among Israelis, opening them to a more Chanukah version of Judaism - the Judaism of Jesus or Messianic Judaism.  

Jamie Cowen