A Lesson from the Festival of Lights

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By Craig Nudelman

It’s the end of 2017 and we’re about to head into the secular new year.

But before that we have one more Jewish festival to look forward to: Chanukah. We are also eagerly awaiting the ANC’s elective conference. Both of these events end on 20 December this year, and PG may we be in a celebratory mood for them. Although one may think the two have nothing in common, let me paint you a picture of the story of Chanukah, and perhaps you can begin to see how the ANC’s Elective Conference is connected to it, through this fascinating story that led to our festival of lights.

It was truly incredible that a small band of priests, under the rule of Mattathias the Maccabee (Maccabee meaning hammer) and his five sons could spark a revolt that would endure for many years to come. But it was not just a revolt against the Seleucid Kingdom (or the Greeks). It was mainly a civil war, one which pitted Jew against Jew.

The Greek way of life had infiltrated many aspects of Judaism. There was disagreement between the traditionalist Jews and the those who wanted to assimilate with Greek culture, regarding what is now called Hellenisation.

The Temple and other structures of Judaism were also well protected for many years. Antiochus III, the Seleucid king, even promised his Jewish subjects a reduction in taxes and funds to repair the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. But it was too good to be true, and after a few years and a change of leadership, the new Antiochus IV decreed that all Jewish rites and rituals would be banned. The Temple was looted and, in 168 BCE, an altar to the Greek god Zeus was erected in the Temple. This is the backdrop for the revolt that began a year later which had the Maccabees fighting for Judaism as they knew it.

What’s fascinating are the other reasons for the civil war. Joseph Schultz sees the conflict as a civil war between traditionalists and reformists instead of an uprising against foreign oppression. Another view is that this was a revolt of the rural traditionalists against their urban contemporaries in other major cities. However, as the civil war drew more attention from the Seleucids, who sent in more troops, the Judeans saw this as encroaching upon their semi-independence. Once Antiochus had decided to prohibit the practices of the ‘traditionalists’, he had now banned the religion of an entire people. And so, from a rebellion between the traditionalists and the reformists, it had now become a war of national liberation.

The part which we celebrate as Chanukah came about in 165 BCE, three years after the beginning of the revolt. The Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated to G-d (Chanukah derives from the verb ‘to dedicate’) and an eight-day holiday was proclaimed. The story of Chanukah is just a small part of the backdrop which would lead to a century-long dynastic era, known as the Hasmonean period. From 140 BCE to 37 BCE, it was the first time that Judea was led by a Jewish leader, Simon, Mattityahu’s third son, since the fall of the Davidic dynastic period in 586 BCE. Brandon Marlin, in the Algemeiner, describes what happened perfectly: “While the five Maccabean brothers were devout, fought Israel’s foes, and restored religious and political freedom to the Jews, their Hasmonean descendants increasingly Hellenised and preoccupied themselves with internecine intrigues and bloody civil wars. Power corrupted the Hasmonean kings, whose machinations crippled Judea…”. Their dynasty ended in 37BCE, and the Herodian dynasty began, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora — where a Jewish State was only created 70 years ago.

How can this be related to the ANC’s elective conference coming up? We are witnessing the same story. The people who fought for liberation before apartheid made a commitment to free the country from oppression. The Bill of Rights in our amazing Constitution was a gift from G-d to this country. But the corruption that has perverted our system has led to corruption, cronyism and the demise of the liberation movement of our country.

It’s hard to imagine in the heat of our South African summer that our Jewish Festival of Lights takes place in the middle of winter. It happens just as the world is about to head into the darkest time of the year; where the nights are long and the precious hours of daylight are limited (or sometimes non-existent). One can say that our sunny days in South Africa have taken on a dark hue. But hopefully the ANC’s elective conference in Gauteng from 16-20 December will shine light onto our country in more ways than one.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

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