Hanukkah gives us such an excellent opportunity to grasp what being a Jewish state is and always has been about: freedom to discuss the truth about God and to live it out with sincerity, even when we don’t have it all right. This freedom of expression within the Jewish state has often resulted in a great diversity of cultural influences in Israel, some more beneficial than others.
One of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of Hanukkah is the sufganiyah—a doughnut filled with jelly or cream. Leading up to the 8-day celebration of Hanukkah each year, beautifully designed sufganiyot appear in the windows of seemingly every bakery throughout Jerusalem. This delightful doughnut has its origins in Germany and not in Judaism. It’s because of the Jewish tradition of eating fried foods during Hanukkah in celebration of the miracle of the oil that this German doughnut took center-stage during Hanukkah.
Another thing that comes to mind when thinking about Hanukkah is the svivon as it is called in Israel, better known by its Yiddish name: the dreidel. The origins of the dreidel are actually in the German version of a game that originated in England and Ireland—Totum. On the top in the German version of this game, they inscribed four letters on the top’s four sides: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In Yiddish the top that was spun as part of the game came to be called a “dreidel” (something spun) among other names. Conveniently, the letters used in Germany for the top’s four sides happen to be the four letters in Hebrew for the phrase: A great miracle happened there (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham). Once again, as with the Hanukkah doughnuts, we find a commemoration of the miracle(s) of Hanukkah going hand-in-hand with an integration of traditions that have their origins in other cultures (i.e.—Germany, Ireland, and England).
Hanukkah, itself, originated in a most violent clash of cultures. Mattathias the Hasmonean priest and his 5 sons started a revolt against their Greek occupiers when Mattathias killed a priest who offered a sacrifice to a Greek idol in the Jerusalem Temple in Mattathias’ place. Mattathias had refused to offer a sacrifice to false gods in the most holy place and could not bear to watch someone else do it in his place and so unleashed a revolt against the Greeks, which earned the Hasmonean family the title “the Maccabees” (Hebrew for: Hammers). The Greeks kept trying to wipe out these rebels but every time they lost against the Maccabees, the Maccabees ended up with more Greek weapons with which they eventually won their total independence until the Roman conquest.
Surprisingly the clash of cultures and religious tensions that deteriorated into the Maccabean revolt in no way resulted in an ethnic cleansing in Israel or any lessening of Greek cultural influences in the land. Most historians today agree that Israel had never become so Greek as it did during the Hasmonean dynasty at which point, Israel was re-established as an independent Jewish state. Greek influences are just as apparent in Israel today: athletics and democracy take center stage in much of our daily discussions. Ironically, athletics were a distinctly Greek practice, but today in Israel some of our most familiar sports teams go by the name Maccabee. That is to say that Israel, both in antiquity and in modernity, has embraced the positive aspects of its oppressors even after the establishment of a Jewish state. It would seem that being a Jewish state has typically encouraged embracing cultural diversity in spite of political tensions.
Of course there were many Jews who disagreed with the kind of Jewish state established by the Maccabees. The Essenes in Qumran, for instance, likely took issue with the new high priesthood established by the Hasmonean family. Likewise, there are many Jews today who disagree with the modern Jewish state. But within this dissent lays an inherent strength of Judaism through the ages: there’s freedom of choice and freedom of expression, values that have been apparent throughout Jewish history. From the start, the Bible makes clear that God created us with the ability to make the inferior of two choices and it’s up to us to choose to live according to His Will (i.e.—Genesis 2 & 3). Jewish tradition has also often encouraged this freedom of expression as seen in the diversity of opinions expressed in Jewish literature such as the Talmud and Midrashim.
This freedom of expression in a Jewish state also makes room for freedom of religion. Perhaps one of the earliest biblical examples of where freedom of religion may have been encouraged among the people of Israel is in Joshua’s statement: “…if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). A little over a millennium after the glorious military triumphs of Joshua, we read that in the days of Yeshua’s earthly ministry, there were numerous political/religious sects such as the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and even, in some ways, the tax collectors among others who had developed a great diversity of lifestyles and responses to the biblical message.
It was to such a diverse crowd of people in a Jewish state that Yeshua spoke during the Hanukkah celebrations some 2,000 years ago. John 10:24 tells us that the people “gathered around” Yeshua during the Hanukkah celebration while he was on the Temple Mount and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Interestingly, many had already come to faith in Yeshua as Messiah during the Sukkot celebration (Feast of Tabernacles) just months before (compare John 7 with John 10). It may be that the same people who had come to faith in him were now expecting him to do what the Maccabees had done just 200 years before: overthrow the wicked governmental powers interfering with the establishment of a free Jewish state (by this point the Romans). To the disdain of many, instead of speaking of a violent revolution, Yeshua was speaking of laying down his life as a shepherd for his sheep. Instead of presenting a revolution against the governmental powers as a good thing, Yeshua was speaking of killing and destruction as the behavior of the thief—a bad thing. Yeshua was discouraging a rebellion against the Romans during one of the most revolutionary holidays in Judaism—Hanukkah.
It seems that in light of Yeshua’s Hanukkah speech, entrance into the kingdom of God first requires laying down one’s life and turning away from a life of rebellion. We also read in Romans 13:1–2: “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities. For there is no governing authority but of God: the governing authorities that exist are ordained of God. Therefore, whoever resists the governing authority, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist will bring judgment on themselves.” Establishing the kingdom of God, especially in Israel, is a promise that God confirms through the death and resurrection of His son and our Messiah. The kingdom of God is at hand, but we are to submit to the governing authorities as we eagerly await Messiah’s second coming.
Israel was blessed by a miracle in WWI when the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in the land of Israel by the Entente Alliance. There were many miracles that happened along the way to bring about the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which did not require a revolt against any well-established authority in the land. Israel’s pursuit of continued existence as a Jewish state is very much in line with modern democratic values but finds its greatest validation in the many interventions of God in this land throughout history on behalf of the Jewish people.
We as believers have the privilege of knowing that there is coming a day when Messiah himself will lead a revolution throughout the earth in which the whole earth will be rededicated to God and cleansed of unrighteousness. Until that time, Hanukkah is an excellent time to grab your sufganiyot and dreidels and spend some time with someone who doesn’t see the world the same way as you. Let this Hanukkah be a time for you to share with others of the coming revolution of Messiah and of the many miracles by which God has made His name known in the world in general and in the land of Israel in particular!