The lessor-known lesson of Chanukah

  • Howard Feldman 2018
Chanukah is so last week. Which makes it a lot less topical than I would like. That means that if I choose to use my column to speak about it, then I must consider it to be that important. And I do.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Dec 13, 2018

I might be alone in having had a very childlike view of the festival. To my mind, Chanukah was all about the ancient Syrian Greeks (not to be confused with modern day Greece), and all about the fight against oppression and dominance. And, it was about the oil that lasted way longer than it should have.

Until I arrived early for shul on Shabbat morning and heard the end of Rabbi Aaron Zulburg’s shiur I had no idea that one of the bigger battles of Chanukah was a Jew-versus-Jew one. Apparently, there was a group of Jews called the Mityavnim. These were Jews who embraced the Hellenic culture over their own, and many converted to the pagan Greek belief system.

The Mityavnim fought against the concept of circumcision (the Greeks didn’t practice this) as it “exposed” Jewishness in the public bath houses. They tried to rid Judaism of other practices. It essentially became a battle for the authenticity of the Jewish faith.

Why do I think it’s important to write about this now? Because although I realised that as Jews we have always been our own worst enemies, I didn’t connect the dots. I didn’t know that the ancient Greeks used the Jews to further their own ambitions. You see, not only did they [the Jews] understand the heart of other Jews, but by doing this, it made it acceptable to those who were not.

It’s the story of Jews who join the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. It’s the story of B’Tselem, and it’s the story of Jews for a Just Palestine. They are damaging because they grant perceived legitimacy to an unjust cause, and to a cause that would result in significant damage to the Jewish people.

Like the Mityavnim, Jews who espouse this philosophy and approach are not interested in the future of the religion, or the preservation of our ancient faith. They are interested in its annihilation.

Why this had an impact on me is because until this point, I hadn’t realised that there is no such thing as a “self-hating” Jew. The Mityavnim might have lived thousands of years before, but they are relevant as a concept today.

The term “self-hating” Jew is a misnomer. They have no hatred for “self”, rather their hatred is for Jews. They abhor the faith, and they wish it harm. That they were born Jewish is not as relevant as we think it is. We need to forget the notion that they are Jewish. It is just confusing.

This does not mean that anyone who has a legitimate criticism of either the practice of Judaism or of Israel will fall into this category. Our history and pursuit of intellectualism demands that we robustly debate and consider and argue. We need to engage, and we need to struggle. We need to be pained by the loss of Jews to anti-Jewish causes. But we need to protect our faith vigorously as well.

If the Mityavnim had been successful, we would not exist today. Consider what would happen if the organisations above achieved their goals.

We need to learn from our own history.


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