||Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.|
The Maccabees and the Hellenists
Hanukkah as Jewish civil war.
By James Ponet
Posted Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005, at 3:29 PM ET
Jewish children, one way or another, manage to acquire insight into
somber holidays like Yom Kippur, Jewish parents tend to assume that
they have nothing to learn from kiddy celebrations. As a result the
"minor" holidays of Purim and Hanukkah escape scrutiny, like lullabies
whose sweet melodies drown out disturbing lyrics. Many a community
knows how to use children as shields against confrontation with its own
darker truths. I can think of no better illustration of this strategy
than our current ways of marking Hanukkah. For it turns out that
Hanukkah is a festival built upon a mound of suppressed memories and
censored texts, a putative celebration of light that in fact
commemorates a Jewish civil war.
The Hanukkah story is
unremarked in the Hebrew Bible and barely referenced in the Talmud.
Instead, it is recorded in books that were banished from the biblical
canon by third-century rabbinic authorities and exiled, as the Books of the Maccabees,
to the Apocrypha. That collection, which takes its name from the Greek
"hidden away" or "secret," is mostly made up of Jewish writings in
Greek—novels, sermons, histories, prophecies. The original story of
Hanukkah, then, is the literary expression of a people that had deeply
absorbed the language, thought, and values of Hellenistic civilization.
are a number of reasons why rabbinic Judaism abandoned these texts. In
the aftermath of the devastating losses inflicted by Rome on the Jews
of Judea—beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., more
than 200 years after the time of the Maccabees—the rabbis wanted to
shape an inward-looking Judaism. They chose to portray the Jews as a
historically small, proud, self-isolating people (think today's
Vietnamese, Thais, Koreans), ready to martyr themselves in the battle
against tyranny, a people capable of sustained spiritual resistance to
foreign domination. The rabbis recast the Hanukkah story to match that
self-image. They emphasized God's intervention on behalf of the Jews
who'd been forced by the Greek Syrian King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes,
publicly to violate Jewish law in 168 B.C.E. The Jews revolted, led by
Mattathias, an elder in the Hasmonean family of priests, and his sons,
the eldest of whom was Judah the Maccabee. With God's help, they
succeeded in capturing the defiled Temple and rededicating it four
in its historical context, however, the Hanukkah story is really about
a revolt against the Hellenized Jews who had fallen madly in love with
the sophisticated, globalizing superculture of their day. The
Apocrypha's texts make it clear that the battle against Hellenization
was in fact a kulturkampf among the Jews themselves. Here is how the
first Book of the Maccabees describes Jerusalem on the eve of civil war
and revolt in the time of Antiochus (translation by Nicholas de Lange):
At that time there were some evil-doers in Israel
who tried to win popularity for a policy of integration with the
surrounding nations. It was because the Jews had kept themselves aloof
for so long, they claimed, that so many hardships had befallen them.
They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them
to introduce the Greek way of life. They built a Greek gymnasium in
Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.
Uncircumcision as the price of admission to the Jerusalem gym!
When they were eight days old, the "sign of the covenant" had been
carved in their flesh; now as young men, these Jews risked health and
sacrificed sexual pleasure to "become one flesh" with the regnant
beauty culture. In Judea, then, there were Jews choosing to die rather
than publicly profane Jewish law—and there were Jews risking death to
free themselves from the parochial constraints of that law. The
historic Jewish passion to merge and disappear confronted the attested
Jewish will to stand apart and persist.
That's the clash of Hanukkah. Armed Hasmonean priests and their comrades from the rural town of Modi'in
attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek
reform, like the gymnasium and new rules for governing commerce. The
Hasmoneans imposed, at sword's edge, traditional observance. After
years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state
that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule.
the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later
invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew.
The rabbis drummed out this history with a fairy tale about a light
that did not go out. But really, who can blame them—after all, what
nation creates a living monument to a civil war?
And in a sense, the rabbis weren't entirely wrong. The Jews
at once succumbed to Greek civilization, forcefully resisted it, and
were transformed by it. Key words of Jewish self-understanding are
still carried by Greek in the collective memory: synagogue, diaspora, Sanhedrin (the Rabbinic high court), and the very term Judaism.
Yet the Jews somehow became Greek without ceasing to be Jews, even as
light—the holiday's metaphor—somehow becomes matter without ceasing to
Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah
implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with
another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to
love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite
beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This
relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate
wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.
the question remains. Was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt
necessary to the survival of Jewish identity? The Hasmonean state,
originally a bulwark against Greek dominance, eventually declined into
a petty Hellenist tyranny barely distinguishable from other
military-political entities in the Middle East at the time. Memory of
the Maccabean era of war and autonomy inspired the Jewish zealots of 67
to 73 C.E. who led the costly losing struggle against Rome that led to
the destruction of Jerusalem. The Maccabean memory also fueled the
messianic hopes of Rabbi Akiva and his followers, who backed the
quixotic revolt of the warrior Shimon Bar Kochba, which Rome bloodily smashed in 135.
the Maccabean memory has been resurrected in the modern state of Israel
in the image of Jew as warrior, and Hanukkah is celebrated by many as a
military holiday, the vestige of an ancient Independence Day. But I
propose that on Hanukkah, we ought to consider whether an ethnic group
that wishes to survive must turn itself into a nation-state. In the
aftermath of the Bar Kochba debacle, at Hanukkah the words of the
prophet Zachariah were read in the synagogue: "Not by power nor by
might but through My spirit, says the Lord." In the glow of the candles
this year we should wonder aloud whether the prophet's vision is but
balm for losers or whether the international system may yet generate a
new way for groups to be both part of the world and apart from it. Here
is the hard question that an adult celebration of Hanukkah can bring
into deliberate focus. Rabbi James Ponet is Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.
Photograph of Ariel Sharon lighting a Hanukkah candle by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.
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