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The God Squad: Happy Hanukkah for Jews and non-Jews

December 14, 2012|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

In the spirit of my life work with Fr. Tom Hartman (who sends his love to all even as he enters the deepest fog of Parkinson's disease), I offer my annual Hanukkah greeting for people who don't celebrate Hanukkah. Next week, I'll send along my Christmas prayer for people who don't celebrate Christmas.

The point of this spiritual flip-flop is to remind us that even during the holidays that most separate us, we can still find abundant and important meanings that unite us. So here's a sense of what the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah can teach people who have no intention of kindling a menorah this week:

One family can make a big difference in the world. When the Maccabees led the revolt against the Syrian Greeks in 168 BCE, Judaism was on the ropes. The conquest and exile of the 10 tribes of the Northern Israelite Empire in 722 BCE by the Assyrians was followed by the fall of the Southern Kingdom and the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

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These catastrophes for Jews and Judaism culminated in the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great and his Greek army in 333 BCE, which further reduced and splintered the small Jewish community that survived.

In addition to the threat of physical extermination, the Greek conquest added the danger of spiritual assimilation. Greek culture — everything from Greek sports to Greek philosophy (Aristotle was Alexander the Great's tutor and companion on his conquests) — all had a great attraction to Jews who wanted to abandon Jewish faith and practice and assimilate into the high secular culture of Hellenism.

If there had been no Maccabean revolt, Jews and Judaism would almost certainly have died out. Judaism would have taken its place with Gnosticism as just another interesting but long-dead religion of antiquity. However, because of one single family, a successful revolt kept Judaism alive and appealing.

Just think about it. Think about just how different the history of the world would have been if Judaism had died out two centuries before the birth of Jesus. There would not have been Jewish soil in which Christianity could have taken root, and, of course, after another seven centuries, there might never have been Islam.

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