This week, we light our Hanukkah candles to celebrate the miracle of the pure oil discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem, which was enough to burn for one day but burned for eight.
The true miracle was that the oil was the heavenly affirmation of the heroic self-sacrifice of a small fighting force of Jews in the Land of Israel who pitted themselves against the full might of one of the largest militarized empires in the world. In a war of the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the Maccabees found the moral courage to oppose the Selucid Greeks’ policy of assimilation by coercion, which sought to force us to accept their values, morals and pagan culture, and abandon our God and Torah.
As the Jews around them were succumbing to Greek culture, the philosophy of Aristotle, the idealization of naked athletic competition in the gymnasiums, the Maccabees took up arms to oppose the Hellenists.
In a war that should have resulted in a massive defeat, the Maccabees were victorious. The miracle of the vial of oil, sealed and hidden from the time before the First Temple’s destruction, celebrates the will of the Jewish people to survive.
The determination of the Maccabees would reverberate 2,000 years later in the Soviet Union, where another small band of Jews like Natan Sharansky and Joseph Mendelevich also summoned the moral courage to pit themselves in a similar struggle—this time against the Soviet government’s determination to forcibly assimilate them.
These Jewish refuseniks and others like them, repeatedly denied permission to emigrate, stood tall and proud like the Maccabees and waged a decades-long non-violent battle to emigrate to Israel and live Jewish lives. For some, their efforts cost them years in prisons and hard labor camps in Siberia. An American grassroots movement, Jews from all walks of life and age groups, joined with them in partnership as one people to assert their right to live as free practicing Jews and to live in Israel.
The moral courage of the refuseniks, which inspired unity and love between them and American Jews, also brought the miraculous heavenly assistance that opened the doors for millions of Russian Jews to emigrate and contribute to the end of the USSR.
Both the struggles of the Maccabees against the Greeks and the refuseniks against the Soviet Union were cosmic clashes of cultures that continue today in the West. The values of contemporary society often contradict Torah values and morals. In this clash of cultures, in which antisemitism produces violence, will American Jews, like the Jewish Hellenists, find refuge in assimilation? Or will we find the same spiritual and moral courage as the Maccabees and the refuseniks to stand hold fast to our identity and dignity, to our Torah and tradition, and pave the way for future Jewish generations?
Pamela Braun Cohen is the author of Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union.