There is an intense irony in Hanukkah. Hanukkah’s primary purpose is to represent and celebrate resistance to assimilation.
Yet modern society treats it as a Jewish-flavored knock-off brand of Christmas. Hanukkah itself has succumbed to assimilation.
The irony goes even deeper. Hanukkah pre-dates the observance of Christmas by hundreds of years. Moreover, if it weren’t for the Maccabees’ successful revolt, there would be no such thing as Christmas.
Had the Hanukkah story ended badly, the Jewish people would have faded into obscurity as another Hellenized province. Judaism would not have existed by the time the New Testament was written. The Greco-Roman pantheon would have formed the religious foundation of Western civilization. The revolutionaries led by the Maccabees refused to give up their national identity. They insisted on remaining Jews, not just ethnically, but spiritually and culturally.
Nine of Yeshua’s thirteen disciples/apostles share names with the Maccabees. This is not a coincidence. The Maccabees were the heroes of Yeshua’s generation, which itself suffered under the oppression of Rome.
In a strange turn of events, Jewish followers of Yeshua in later generations were stripped of all signs of their Jewishness. To be considered true followers of the Jewish Messiah, Jews had to assimilate.
Then, in the nineteenth century, a strange reversal occurred. The Jewish world experienced the Haskalah, sometimes called the “Jewish Enlightenment.” Jews in Europe began secularizing at a rapid pace and assimilated into the predominantly Christian society.
Simultaneously, among Jewish followers of Yeshua there was a revolution. Like Messianic Maccabees, a small handful of Jewish followers of Yeshua independently rejected the idea that they should become like Gentiles. At Vine of David, we like to call them luminaries. These are men and women who envisioned and pioneered Messianic Judaism: a uniquely Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua.
It took a long time for their ideas to catch on. In their time, most Jewish Christians and the evangelistic missions to the Jews criticized them for being Judaizers. But eventually, their revolutionary spirit caught on like a flame, and they paved the way for Messianic Judaism as we know it today.
Allow me to share some of these brilliant luminaries and their words of encouragement against assimilation.
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein
Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein (1825-1908) served as a district rabbi in Tápiószele, Hungary, when an encounter with the gospel changed his life. He became an outspoken disciple of Yeshua of Nazareth, but he remained in his post as district rabbi for several years. Despite pressure from rabbinic authorities, Jewish believers, and Christian leaders, he could not be compelled to renounce Judaism or his devotion to the Torah. He wrote:
Indeed, Israel is a priestly people and a holy nation. Like the sun that pours forth its light and illuminates all that grows, so also is Israel the blazing fire in the thorn bush. She is the oil lamp of the widow, the oil which nourishes all the holy flames, the shamash lamp with which all the greater lights are lit. Being a light to the nations is a precious honor for which we have paid dearly, a lofty knowledge written in blood, a covenant sealed with fire. (The Everlasting Jew, 65)
It is usually the endeavor of Jewish Christians, in the very first generation, to be rid of every Jewish impress, to amalgamate with the Christians, and be lost among others. The individual is lost, but the people remain. Israel, as the elect people, the everlasting witness to the peoples, cannot and ought not to disappear in the tumult of the nations. (The Everlasting Jew, 131)
Shall we then be absorbed into Christendom, and will there be an end to our divinely sanctioned people? By no means! Israel will then, at last, attain the position to which she is called of God. We will be the head of the nations, the firstborn, the people of salvation from whom the Savior of all peoples has arisen. We will be renowned as that nation in which the kingdom of God was first founded and reached its perfection in Yeshua, the true king of Israel. (The Everlasting Jew, 85.)
Chaim Yedidiah Pollak
Chaim Yedidiah Pollak (1854-1916), also known as Theophilus Lucky, was born in Tysmienica, Austrian Galicia, today part of western Ukraine. As a traditionally observant and educated Jew and devoted disciple of Yeshua, he fiercely rejected the notion that a Jewish follower of Yeshua should cease to live as a Jew:
I am a faithful Jew just like all the other faithful Jews who keep the Torah. In every instance we see eye to eye. There is only one area in which I cannot agree; one thing distinguishes and separates me from most other Jews. This one point of difference has assigned me a different destiny in life… Yeshua the Messiah is the life of my spirit. In him I find rest for my soul. He is the light of my salvation. (Testimony to Israel, 63)
I am a son of the Mosaic and Judaic faith, and I consistently declare my belief in Moses and the prophets and the words of our sages of blessed memory, who were scholars and heroes of the Jewish faith. In my opinion, their words are holy. For this reason my soul has cleaved to the Messiah, Yeshua ben Yosef, for the Torah, the prophets, and our sages testified about him. He is the objective of the entire Torah. (Testimony to Israel, 74)
Abram Poljak (1900-1963) was the pivotal character of twentieth-century Messianic Judaism. He explained his vision in this way:
God wants the Jews to remain Jews. The roots of our spiritual strength lie in Judaism. As Jews, we are God’s people. Falling away from Judaism—denial of being Jewish—is punished.
God will find the assimilated in every country until all Israel turns around and sets out for the Father’s house—for the essence of what is Jewish is the spirit of the eternal, martyred, unlimited faith of sincere, honest Judaism. On this path the Messiah—Yeshua of Nazareth, King of the Jews—will encounter us. (Bram, 42)
These are just a few of the many powerful statements our brilliant luminaries made about resisting assimilation. Their words spoken long ago are no less relevant to us today, as Jewish disciples of Yeshua continue the spiritual battle for their Jewish heritage. Let us be strengthened by their vision for the commandments of God and the testimony of our Messiah Yeshua.
Learn more about the Messianic Luminaries Series, and other books published by Vine of David.