Chanukah – lighting the path to peace and justice

JVL sends greetings for Chanukah to all our members, supporters and friends.

There is no holiday in the Jewish calendar whose meaning is more contested than that of Chanukah. We join with Jewish Voice for Peace who expressed their commitment to its celebration last year with these words:

“Unlike a nationalist and militaristic reading of Hanukkah, we wish to make a public space to honor our vulnerability, our commitment to hope, and our light in the midst of the darkest part of the year. We wish to call upon our deepest light and remind ourselves and each other that like our many ancestors have done to get us to today, we too will fight for freedom for everyone to worship, celebrate and live with dignity and justice.

To celebrate this year we repost two older essays: Robert A.H. Cohen’s 2011 reflections on the competing strands of the tradition; and Christopher Hitchens cantankerous but powerful 2007 portrayal of it as the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.

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

Robert A.H. Cohen, Micah’s Pradigm Shift, 11 December 2011

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!


Bah, Hanukkah

The holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.

Jewish orthodoxy possesses the interesting feature of naming and combating the idea of the apikoros or “Epicurean”—the intellectual renegade who prefers Athens to Jerusalem and the schools of philosophy to the grim old routines of the Torah. About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith. I quote Rabbi Michael Lerner, an allegedly liberal spokesman for Judaism who nonetheless knows what he hates:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes.

But away with all that, says Lerner. Let us instead celebrate the Maccabean peasants who wanted to destroy Hellenism and restore what he actually calls “oldtime religion.” His excuse for preferring fundamentalist thuggery to secularism and philosophy is that Hellenism was “imperialistic,” but the Hasmonean regime that resulted from the Maccabean revolt soon became exorbitantly corrupt, vicious, and divided, and encouraged the Roman annexation of Judea. Had it not been for this no-less imperial event, we would never have had to hear of Jesus of Nazareth or his sect—which was a plagiarism from fundamentalist Judaism—and the Jewish people would never have been accused of being deicidal “Christ killers.” Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back. And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

And, of course and as ever, one stands aghast at the pathetic scale of the supposed “miracle.” As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

We are about to have the annual culture war about the display of cribs, mangers, conifers, and other symbols on public land. Most of this argument is phony and tawdry and secondhand and has nothing whatever to do with “faith” as its protagonists understand it. The burning of a Yule log or the display of a Scandinavian tree is nothing more than paganism and the observance of a winter solstice; it makes no more acknowledgment of the Christian religion than I do. The fierce partisanship of the holly bush and mistletoe believers convicts them of nothing more than ignorance and simple-mindedness. They would have been just as pious under the reign of the Druids or the Vikings, and just as much attached to their bucolic icons. Everybody knows, furthermore, that there was no moving star in the east, that Quirinius was not the governor of Syria in the time of King Herod, that no worldwide tax census was conducted in that period of the rule of Augustus, and that no “stable” is mentioned even in any of the mutually contradictory books of the New Testament. So, to put a star on top of a pine tree or to arrange various farm animals around a crib is to be as accurate and inventive as that Japanese department store that, as urban legend has it, did its best to emulate the Christmas spirit by displaying a red-and-white bearded Santa snugly nailed to a crucifix.

This is childish stuff and if only for that reason should obviously not receive any public endorsement or financing. The display of the menorah at this season, however, has a precise meaning and is an explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason. As such it is a direct negation of the First Amendment and it is time for the secularists and the civil libertarians to find the courage to say so.

Comments (2)

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    From the grave, Christopher Hitchens has made me laugh. What an inspired pairing of articles – Robert Cohen and CH! Enough for many hours of talmudic -style argument. Happy Chanukah

  • Jean Bale says:

    Totally biased as usual against a legitimate Jewish homeland.

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