Myth: The Hellenic Seleucids only waged war on the soul of Judaism. They were only trying to convert us to their pagan, hedonistic, Greek ways, and were not interested in hurting us physically. Rabbi David Addato writes, “It’s amazing that the Syrian Greeks never tried to kill us physically, they never even considered exiling us from the Land of Israel…” Rabbi Joshua Bitton writes, “Their threat was not a physical one. It was an ideological aggression.” He writes further, “There was no physical threat to the Jewish people.” (Both of the aforementioned rabbis wrote articles in the paper “Veshinantam”, which is where the quotes are from.)
Fact: The Seleucid-Jewish struggle had physical and spiritual dimensions. There is no doubt that that there was an ongoing effort by Hellenized Jews to undermine Torah and traditional Jewish life in favor of the Greek way of life, in religion, in gymnastics and in philosophy. These Hellenized Jews were often times buttressed by the ruling class of non-Jewish Greeks (Seleucids), to the extent that people actually think that the Hellenized Jews were simply playing second fiddle to the Greeks. (An analysis that I disagree with, which is why I phrased the analyses in the reverse way.)
But, long before the Seleucids desecrated the Temple or the Maccabees rebelled, the Greeks were a menace to the physical bodies of the Jews. The moment foreign troops entered the land of Israel, they set the foundation for later rebellion and subjugation—physical threats to the Jewish people. Consider too this important section in 2 Maccabees (5:11–14):
“When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”
Irrespective of Hellenization, the presence of a foreign power in Israel meant trouble. This attack on Jerusalem in 168 BC was the opening act of the Maccabee Rebellion. The salient event that led to the Chanukah story, then, was the physical attack on the Jews, the brutal killing and enslavement of thousands of Jews.