Bitter and sweet thoughts on Hannukkah

December 23, 2011
Sarah Benton

Time has come to reclaim Hanukkah, Christopher Hitchens style

Christopher Hitchens was not the only commentator in recent times to question the idealistic narrative of the Maccabees.

By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz

When he was 38, the age I am now, the ultimate journalist and brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens, who died last week, discovered almost by coincidence that he was Jewish. I suppose all of us wonder how we would respond to such a revelation; would it shake us to our core and lead us to question everything we believed of ourselves, re-examine the makeup of our entire identity?

Hitchens, as he tells it, was delighted. A devoted atheist, even antitheist, he did not feel the need to jettison a previous set of religious beliefs, he wrote that he was “pleased to find that I was pleased.” The knowledge that he also came from this stubborn breed of individual contrarians thrilled him, as many of his friends and heroes were also of Hebraic extraction, but it didn’t change his basic outlook. His Jewish role models were avowed rebels, secularists and independent thinkers, in the tradition of Baruch Spinoza.

His newly-found roots did not prevent him from identifying with the Palestinian national cause and bitterly criticizing Zionism in its ascendant right-wing chauvinist form and excoriating rabbinical Judaism with equal fervor to that with which he abominated every other flavor of theology. One of his constant objects of scorn was “the vapid and annoying holiday known as ‘Hanukkah,'” which according to Hitchens commemorates “an absolute tragic day in human history.”

In his best-selling God is not Great, Hitchens rips into Hanukkah and all it stands for. Ironically, it offended him on a proprietary level as a Jew, that while Christianity was basically a plagiarism of ancient Judaism (and Islam in turn “borrowed” from both the older creeds ), Hanukkah was set in the calendar “in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with ‘Christmas,'” but he had a much more visceral objection to the festival of lights.

According to Hitchens, the Maccabees were a sect of murderous religious fanatics, whose victims had been the open-minded Jews attracted to the modern Hellenistic culture and Greek philosophy. The Maccabean victory meant that the historical opportunity whereby “the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism” and the ascendancy of the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea, allied with the Roman empire, “was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy ) and thus ineluctably to lead to the birth of Islam.” Judah the Maccabee certainly has a lot to answer for.

Hitchens was not the first writer to turn the story of Hanukkah on its head and recast the Maccabees as bloodthirsty religious fundamentalists and their Hellenist rivals as persecuted adherents of enlightenment, but he was probably the most eloquent and persuasive. Much of the British and American media has been going through a Hitchens-orgy over the last few days, hundreds of websites celebrating his memory with “the best of” his writing and YouTube clips of choice appearances in televised debates and interviews.

As an avid Hitchens-reader over the years, I spent long luxurious hours online soaking it all up, rediscovering and occasionally finding new gems of prose. But as the first candle was lit on Tuesday evening, I felt the same unease I experienced when I first read God is not Great as it came out four years ago – is there something shameful about Hanukkah?

The poet-philosopher Eliaz Cohen admitted to me that he has also felt uncomfortable in the past with the Maccabean heritage. “I don’t want to see them as a group of fanatics coercing other people to act against their will,” he says, “but that isn’t the perspective we should have of them. It was a period in which a great empire was trying to impose its will and its culture on a Jewish minority, and I can identify with that minority’s struggle to preserve its identity against the odds.”

The Maimonidean scholar Micah Goodman told me that “Hitchens’ narrative of Hanukkah is an historical one, based on texts like the books of Maccabees which may not be entirely accurate. But anyway Jews do not base their festivals on history but on memory. It isn’t about who we were, it’s about how we remember ourselves. The sages of the Mishna and Talmud were not big fans of the Hasmoneans, who were a family of priests who appointed themselves as kings. The sages were very suspicious of the priests and did not want them as leaders.

That’s why the Talmud emphasizes the religious aspect of Hanukkah. They didn’t want it to be about the Maccabees fighting for independence and their own power, but about the Jews struggling to be allowed to cling to their tradition. That’s why the prayer they wrote for Hanukkah, Al Ha-Nissim, stresses the Greek empire that tried to make the Jews “forget your Torah and violate the decrees of your will.”

The Jewish narrative of Hanukkah is not one of coercion – quite the opposite, it’s a narrative of freedom of religion which is a liberal principle. And if there is a historical narrative of Hanukkah, and a traditional Jewish narrative, we have to add to that the secular-Zionist narrative of the Maccabees as freedom-fighers championing a nationalist and irreligious ethos. This narrative allowed the pioneers and soldiers of a young state to identify with the mythological Jewish warriors without any of the theological baggage.

Zionist poet Aharon Ze’ev, who as one of the founders of the IDF Education Corps was also a political commissar, encapsulated this narrative in the popular marching song, “We are bearing torches” with the refrain “no miracle happened to us, we did not find a jar of oil” sung at countless Hanukkah ceremonies in army units and secular schools ever since.

So who were the Maccabees? Brave rebels standing up to an evil empire, like the young fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the might of Nazi Germany? Maybe their historical counterparts are the Hebrew students of Moscow and Leningrad clinging onto Jewish heritage in the face of the Soviet Union that like the Seleucid Empire tried to stamp out the heritage and culture of minorities within it? Or were they, as Hitchens wrote, ancient precursors of the Taliban, turning back the tide of enlightenment, enslaving men and women in a rigid theocracy?

As much as we might want to cling to one of the more idealistic narratives, we cannot afford to ignore Hitchens, especially as there are Jews who today aspire to be exactly that kind of Maccabees. It is not rare to hear both Haredi rabbis and religious settlers from the hilltops refer to left-wing and secular Israelis as “Hellenists” who have ditched “true” Jewish values for foreign ideals such as human rights and equality for women. Xenophobia is alive and well in the second-age Zionist state, and it pervades mainstream discourse, eroding our basic freedom while secular Israel is celebrating an empty-headed holiday of glitzy childrens’ pageants and designer glazed doughnuts.

We can save Maccabean tradition though, whatever happened in BCE Judea, there is still light enough to go around. We don’t have to ditch Hanukkah, but we can reclaim it.

Maccabees, Miracles and Zionists…
…and how to get the balance right.

By Robert Cohen, JNews

What the early Zionists conveniently forgot when they began to promote the hero-worship of the Maccabees and their Jewish nationalist uprising against the Assyrian Greeks in 169 BCE, was why the rabbis had been so keen to down-play the rebels’ story in the first place. Why did second century CE rabbinic Judaism want to ignore the muscular Maccabees and shift our focus to the miracle of the Temple oil instead? Why was lighting candles in menorahs better than recalling battles of old and Jewish warriors clad in armour?

Their reasoning turns out to be just as valid today as it was two thousand years ago and their more cautious approach to the Maccabees and their Hasmonean Priestly/Kingship dynasty is worth reflecting on when we look at the modern State of Israel.

A turning point in history
From a purely historical perspective, there can be no more important a festival than Hanukkah. After all, if Mattathias and his sons had not started their guerrilla uprising against the Assyrian Greek empire then Judaism may have disappeared, reduced to a footnote in the history of the Ancient World. And without the melting pot of competing traditional and renewal responses to first century Temple Judaism, what would have become of the radical preacher from Nazareth, whose birth the world will celebrate in a few days time?

There’s no doubt that the Maccabee revolt against imperial Greek culture and religion changed the course of history. No Judaism, no Christianity. No Western Civilisation as we know it.

The down-playing of Hanukkah
But despite its significance as a turning point in history, Hanukkah has, for most of its history, been a very minor Jewish festival. The books recounting the story of the Maccabee revolt were not even included in the official canon of the Hebrew Bible. Ironically, it’s only because they were translated into Greek and then adopted into the Christian Apocrypha that the traditional accounts survive.

In the Talmud, the rabbis devote just a few paragraphs to discussing the festival as part of a digression on the lighting of Sabbath candles. They also inserted the story of the miracle of the small cruse of holy Temple oil discovered by the Jewish rebels as they cleansed the Temple after its Greek desecration. Although only enough to last for one day, the oil allows the Holy Temple light to burn for eight days. The symbolic importance of this modest miracle should not be underestimated.

A Zionist revival
For Zionists, the story of the Maccabee revolt was the perfect foundation for their re-invention of Jewish nationalism and their critique of Diaspora Jews. Here was a story of Jews battling successfully to protect their identity by taking their fate into their own hands. No waiting around for the Messiah to bring their redemption and defeat to their enemies. Through single-minded dedication, the Maccabees were able to restore Jewish independence against overwhelming odds. And rather than the pale, meek, Talmud scholars of Eastern Europe, here were muscular, uninhibited Jews from the Promised Land with the strength to succeed.

As Herzl wrote in ‘The Jewish State’ in 1896:
“And what glory awaits the selfless fighters for the cause! Therefore I believe that a wondrous breed of Jews will spring up from the earth. The Maccabees will rise again.”

It’s hardly surprising that the rebels were recruited to Zionism and their story began to grow in significance as part of Hanukkah celebrations.

But there’s much more to the story of the Maccabees which should temper our enthusiasm for their model for achieving political salvation.

Having won their victory, the Maccabees established their own dominant priestly and monarchic dynasty with little room for political or religious dissent. They favoured the Temple cult of sacrifices led by the priestly elite of Sadducees who violently opposed the more scripture based learning and study of the Pharisees who were the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism. What’s more, they negotiated a series of increasingly one-sided treaties with Rome which shored up the dynasty in the short-term but ultimately led to an exchange of Greek for Roman imperial serfdom.

By the second century CE the rabbis had learnt that the secret of long-term Jewish survival was not might or power or physical territory. Numerous failed attempts to overthrow Roman domination had taught them that desiring power through land in the age of great empires was a dead end and could risk the Jewish people losing everything. Better to buckle down for the long game.

What worked better was to develop a Judaism that was truly portable and applicable everywhere and not just in the Holy Land. Let individual and communal prayer, study and ethical action take the place of Temple sacrifice. The rabbis taught us how to make time and actions holy, rather than space and place. And, they argued, exile from the Land was not the fault of the Romans but caused by our own failure to live by the high standard of social justice and honour of God’s creation that had been set for the descendants of Abraham. Return to Zion was indefinitely postponed and atonement through ethical acts and spiritual piety in the world at large was our new mission. This was the rabbinic genius which kept the Jewish people intact and relevant into the modern age. This was also the message the Zionist preferred to relegate in favour of a renewed territorial emphasis as the answer to all Jewish problems.

Some Hanukkah lessons
The rabbis preferred, not the guerrilla uprising, but the modest and homely image of the Hanukkah menorah with its small, fragile, short-burning candles to be our guiding spiritual metaphor. The candles remind us how even the smallest flicker of light can be enough to guide our way. The tiny cruse of holiness, that may appear so insufficient for the spiritual journey, is in truth enough fuel to sustain us. The first century Rabbi Hillel, gave us the good advice to start with one candle on the first night of the festival and build up to lighting all eight only on the last night. In this way we increase rather than diminish the message of holiness and grow the promise and hope for a better world.

The story of the Maccabees certainly has a role to play in the festival too, but not the very literal understanding that early and modern Zionism promotes.

The lesson we should draw from the rebels is the importance of pride in our history and identity. The Maccabees should also remind us that human action is required, just as much as prayer and piety, if the world is to be made whole. As Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, God is in search of man.

The issue today is that the festival of Hanukkah has become unbalanced in its observance. The creative tension between the warrior Maccabees and the rabbis’ fragile but eternal flames of hope has been lost. Instead, we have become seduced by the image of the warrior Jew defending the nation state. We find ourselves, in 2008-9, naming military operations to crush the people of Gaza after a line in a children’s song about Hanukkah dreidels (Operation ‘Cast Lead’). Where has this left us as a people? Are we safer? Have we banished anti-Semitism? Have we normalised the condition of the Jews?

Hanukkah reminds us that our values and our heritage are important to us and worth preserving. It also reminds us that this can only be achieved if we maintain the right balance between Maccabean self-reliance and rabbinical holiness.

A Hanukkah prayer
As we approach the first night of the festival of lights, I offer the following prayer to add to the traditional liturgy.

Blessed are the flickering lights of the Hanukkah menorah. May they remind us that the world can be made different and better, that differences can be respected and honoured and that the work of humankind should go hand in hand with the work of Creation. Amen.

Happy Hanukkah!

Robert Cohen is the author of Micah’s Paradigm Shift, a blog that reflects on Israel/Palestine from a UK, progressive Jewish and non-Zionist perspective.

The Night Before Chanukah

Parody of Clement Clarke Moore‘s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Anon

‘Twas the night before Chanukah, boichiks and maidels
Not a sound could be heard, not even the dreidels
The menorah was set by the chimney alight
In the kitchen, the Bubbie was hopping a bite
Salami, Pastrami, a glaisele tay
And zoyere pickles mit bagels– Oy vay!

Gezint and geschmock the kinderlach felt
While dreaming of taiglach and Chanukah gelt
The alarm clock was sitting, a kloppin’ and tickin’
And Bubbie was carving a shtickele chicken
A tummel arose, like the wildest k’duchas
Santa had fallen right on his tuchas!

I put on my slippers, ains, tzvay, drei
While Bubbie was eating herring on rye
I grabbed for my bathrobe and buttoned my gottkes
And Bubbie was just devouring the latkes
To the window I ran, and to my surprise
A little red yarmulka greeted my eyes.

When he got to the door and saw the menorah
“Yiddishe kinder,” he cried, “Kenahorah!”
I thought I was in a Goyishe hoise!
As long as I’m here, I’ll leave a few toys.”
“Come into the kitchen, I’ll get you a dish
Mit a gupel, a leffel, and a shtickele fish.”

With smacks of delight he started his fressen
Chopped liver, knaidlach, and kreplach gegessen
Along with his meal he had a few schnapps
When it came to eating, this boy sure was tops
He asked for some knishes with pepper and salt
But they were so hot he yelled out “Gevalt!”

He loosened his hoysen and ran from the tish
“Your koshereh meals are simply delish!”
As he went through the door he said “See y’all later
I’ll be back next Pesach in time for the seder!”
So, hutzmir and zeitzmir and “Bleibtz mir gezint”
he called out cheerily into the wind.

More rapid than eagles, his prancers they came
As he whistled and shouted and called them by name
“Come, Izzie, now Moishe, now Yossel and Sammy!
On Oyving, and Maxie, and Hymie and Manny!”
He gave a geshrai, as he drove out of sight
“A gut yontiff to all, and to all a good night!


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