Friday, December 11, 2009

A cause for celebration

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. I was going to write about the story of Hanukkah I first read in Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht, a historical survey of doubt, emphasizing skepticsm was healthy in the past and made significant contributions. But David Brooks beat me to it, as he and Hecht tell the story of Hanukkah as a conflict between less religious Jews and more religious Jews. The Greeks gentiles weren't the central players.

The story of Hanukkah that I know, the most basic, most sanitized version, goes like this:

The Jews resisted their forced conversion to Greek paganism from the Greek rulers. They forced Jews to worship Greek gods and even dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus. However, Judah Maccabbee organized a resistance against the Greeks and won. They got religious freedom, preserved their nation, and the Temple was rededicated. But the oil remaining in the Temple was only enough to last one night, but miraculously, it burned for eight nights. The Jews were happy. And Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights.

But Hecht and Brooks have this account of Hanukkah. The chief conflict was between Hellenized Jews and more orthodox Maccabbees. It's a question of identity and of religious practice. Who can be a Jew? Assimilated Jews and conservative Jews had different answers.

Furthermore, Jews forced to assimilate into Greek society. They did so willingly. Hecht writes:
For Jews, this meant an economic, social and cultural boom. Jews took on Greek names — Joshua became Jason, Saul became Paul. And they built a gymnasium — a Greek center for training in sports, philosophy and politics — at the foot of the Temple Mount.
Hellenized Jews weren't keeping kosher.
Many Greek-educated Jews of the upper class (often the elite priest class) ignored the laws of Moses, which seemed restrictive and dated. Abraham became their great father because, predating Moses, he did not keep kosher.
However, the pious (and poorer Jews) angry. This erupted when one Jew killed another who went to the temple to sacrifice, to Zeus. Hecht continues:
The killer’s son Judah would come to be called Maccabee (the hammer) for his ruthless soldiering. Wherever the Maccabees triumphed, secular Jewish men were brutalized, even beheaded.
The rededication of the Temple then, came about because one group of Jews triumphed over their more secular brethren.

I'm not here to rain on the menorah lighting, gift exchanging, and dreidel spinning festivities. The history of Hanukkah doesn't diminish what I think is the significance of holidays anyway: to be together with the family, to feel a sense of goodwill among people (or among people of the same religion...). Even if the reason for celebration is invented, it's still a good time.

It is not my intention to channel Brook's subtext. I'll not speculate on modern parallels to "angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East" as he writes in his column. Disclaimers done, now my point.

My point is this, to quote Brooks, "The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices." The narratives that define a people are less joyous and more ambivalent than we generally think they are.

My point is also, to echo Hecht, "Hanukkah will be a celebration of Hellenized Jewry. These ancestors weren’t turncoats, after all — they were good cosmopolitan Jews." We are living in even more cosmopolitan times than second century BCE Judea. The flow of cultures should not be an alarm to ward off the border from ideas and from people. Our definition of what constitutes a people should be narrow. Our only option is to accept greater diversity, not only in religious belief, but in all other matters.

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