With the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great (331 BCE), Judah confronted a new cultural context, different in important ways from the cultures of Mesopotamia that had dominated the region for almost 500 years. The dilemma of how to draw the line between faithfulness to the Torah and acceptance of values and behaviors from the dominant culture became more complicated during the Hellenistic period than in the days of the First Temple. The same problem of the connection between political and cultural independence continued to exist, but was made more difficult by certain emphases of Hellenistic culture: on individualism, on cosmopolitanism, and on rationalism. These qualities made it possible for the individual Jew to define an integrated identity, incorporating elements of both Jewish and Hellenistic cultures. Thus, the meeting with Hellenism confronted Judaism with new challenges.
We don’t know too much about how Judaism dealt with Hellenism during the first century or so after Alexander’s conquest. However, with the Hasmonean revolt — and establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty — the struggle to define the relationship between the two cultures moves to center stage, and dominates Jewish history and thought for about 300 years.
In the past century, the Hasmonean revolt has taken on different interpretations:
- the classical rabbinic understanding of God’s miraculous intervention
- the enlightenment/emancipation view that this was a struggle for religious freedom
- the Zionist view that it was a war for national independence.
Thus, how we teach the Chanukah story says as much about our own Jewish identity and belief as it does about the historical events themselves. It also provides an interesting historical context for discussing the nature of a “Jewish state.”