Though the books are now over ten years old, our kids have been reading the Percy Jackson novel series. If you don’t know it, it’s based on the idea that the Greek gods still exist, and while there were literal places in Greece like Mount Olympus, they also move based on where the center of Western Civilization is, so there’s a “Mount Olympus” that’s now on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. One of the key themes is that a “hero” isn’t always such a good person – and indeed, throughout all of Greek mythology, heroes were always flawed, usually arrogant, and often quite violent. And part of what makes the series fun to read and discuss with my kids is why virtues in Greek mythology – military power, brute strength, cunning, and trickery – are no longer celebrated today.
Though the story of Hanukkah is often framed as “Jews vs. Greeks,” as it unfolded in the mid-2nd century BCE, it was also deeply influenced by Greek thinking. The first stories of Hanukkah were written soon after the events, and texts such as 2 Maccabees talk about how horrible the provocations were from Antiochus IV and how important it is to keep Jewish customs. However, it was actually written in Greek and has stories that wouldn’t feel out of place next to the Iliad. The “heroic” virtues in the Greek world influenced the way later Jewish leaders (such as the Maccabees’ descendants, the Hasmoneans) would lead the nation.
Hundreds of years later, the story of Hanukkah has changed. Many of the parts we know best – the miracle of the oil, the laws and customs of lighting the Hanukkiyah, the prayers that are included in the liturgy – were codified by the Rabbis in the Talmud. There, the story focuses on the miracles that occurred, the role of God, and the need to give thanks, and never mentioning once the word “Maccabees.” Part of the reason was because the descendants of the Maccabees were terrible rulers, but perhaps the bigger reason was because the Rabbis had seen how devastating war can be. In the first three centuries of the Common Era, the Jews rebelled against the Romans much in the way they did against the Greeks, and while they were fairly successful for a time, the Roman army was much stronger. When the Jews did lose, the Roman punishments were severe. They included the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion of Jews from the land of Judea, and even renaming the province and city from “Judea” and “Jerusalem” to “Syria-Palestina” and “Aelia Capitolina.”
The framing of a “hero” then changed, as Jews didn’t have military or political power. For millennia, fighting wasn’t a successful survival strategy for the Jewish people, so the Rabbis saw study and prayer as the sources of strength and heroism. This tamping-down became even more pronounced when Hanukkah migrated to America as a widely celebrated holiday in December, where songs of peace and harmony would be in direct conflict with the holiday’s war-like origins. There’s a classic song in Hebrew called Mi Yemaleil, “Who can retell?” and while most of the English translation is fairly faithful to the Hebrew, there’s one change that you may not have noticed if you only sing the English – “In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.” The Hebrew speaks only of the “hero,” gibor, not the “sage.” The “hero” here is not a warrior but someone learned and thoughtful.
This Hanukkah, so many of us are struggling with how we respond to not just a spiritual or intellectual war but an actual military war. We’re grappling with how Israel must try to eliminate (or at least cripple) Hamas and protect its citizens for the future, strive to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza right now and stop the violence in the West Bank incited by settlers. Not only that, we are all dealing with the global rise of antisemitism wherever we live.
And that’s why I’m looking towards heroes of all stripes. As so many have said, we need to look for heroes from the bottom up, not the top down. Tom Friedman recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Rescuers.” It’s an incredible story of the strength and heroism of Bedouins in Israel and reminds us that the more we can find nuance – as he says, through the kaleidoscope of complex stories – the more clarity and hope we discover, as well. As Friedman summarizes it:
Bedouins saving Israeli Jews from Hamas are being saved by a rescued Israeli Jewish woman from being shot by the Israeli Army after they rescued her … kaleidoscopic.
While I was interviewing the al-Qrinawi family, they introduced me to Shir Nosatzki, a co-founder of the Israeli group Have You Seen the Horizon Lately, which promotes Jewish-Arab partnerships. Immediately after learning of the rescue, her husband, Regev Contes, made a seven-minute video in Hebrew to share the tale of the Bedouin rescue team with his fellow Israelis. It has reportedly garnered hundreds of thousands of views in Israel. I asked Nosatzki why they made the video.
“It was to show that Oct. 7 was not a war between Jews and Arabs but between darkness and light,” she said.
The idea of a “hero” has changed since Greek mythology. It’s changed since the time of the Maccabees. And it’s changed since the dawn of the State of Israel. But even as we enter into the darkest time of the year, Hanukkah is primarily about increasing light.
Today, more than ever, that’s what a hero truly does.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he’s written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife, Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter and son.