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No Maccabees in Ukraine

The Ukrainian struggle is heroic, but comparisons to Chanukah are facile

Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to the US coincided with Chanukah. President Biden said:
“A time when Jewish people around the world, President Zelensky and many families among them, honor the timeless miracle of a small band of warriors fighting for the values and their freedom against a much larger foe and how they endured and how they overcame. How the flame of faith with only enough oil for one day burned brightly for eight days. The story of survival and resilience that reminds us on the coldest day of the year, that light will always prevail over darkness.”

Precisely because there is some truth in this statement, its distortion of the Chanukah message demonstrates the danger in cultural misappropriation. Yes, Zelensky and Ukraine are fighting a heroic battle for freedom against a much larger foe, just like the Maccabees did. Yes, the Ukrainians’ resilience deserves our admiration, our weaponry and our economic support. Ukraine is paying the price the West would otherwise have to pay to counter Russia’s aggressive designs.

To point out the qualitative differences between Ukraine’s struggle and the Maccabees’ struggle is not to diminish the importance or the heroism of Ukraine and the amazing leadership of Zelensky. But no, the struggle of the Maccabees was not a war for ” and “freedom” and “faith” and other abstractions that eviscerate the three Jewish laser foci of the Maccabees’ battle: circumcision, rosh chodesh and Shabbat.

These were the three main elements of Jewish faith that the Syrian Greeks tried to uproot in the Jewish community — and the three goals that motivated the Maccabean military resistance.

• The freedom to practice circumcision, because it is the root of Jewish identity;

• the freedom to practice rosh chodesh, because without the ability to mark the first of every Hebrew month, the timing of every Jewish holiday were be violated; i.e., the Jewish calendar and hence Jewish life would be lost;

• the freedom to observe Shabbat, because it testifies to the Jewish connection to G-d, it affirms the creation of the universe by the Alm-ghty and it rhythmically infuses Jewish life with sacred joy.

As for the “flame of faith with only enough oil for one day,” this was the flame of the most particularistic Jewish focus of all: the Divine service of the exclusively Jewish, ritual purity of oil and of other items in the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jewish laser foci of the Maccabees amounted to a civil war as much as a war against an external enemy. The Jewish Hellenizers of the time — the Jewish assimilationists — were also fiercely opposed by the Maccabees. When the Maccabees finally wrested control of the ancient Holy Temple from the Syrian Greeks and the miracle of the oil occurred, the Jewish Hellenizers were not on the scene. The Chanukah miracle was as much a firm rebuke of the assimilationists as it was a renewal of Jewish sovereignty.

Zelensky drew strength from Chanukah’s theme of political sovereignty —“those who were outnumbered defeated those who outnumbered them,” he said — but he, like Biden, was oblivious to the three Jewish foci of Chanukah. It was not merely that “light defeated darkness,” as Zelensky put it, it was that the light of ritually pure oil in the ritual center of the Jewish people that defeated the darkness that the extirpation of circumcision, rosh chodesh and Shabbat would signal.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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