Hanukkah - Still crazy after all these years
Posted: 11 December 2006 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]
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[b:909f5a0725]A part of an interesting essay, and my comments below it.[/b:909f5a0725]

Hanukkah - Still crazy after all these years
by Doug Rushkoff

    Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light, is usually recounted as the story of how the Maccabees, the first generation of the Hasmonean Jewish dynasty, fought to reclaim the Holy Temple from the anti-Semitic Greeks.  After the Maccabbees won the war, they came upon a tiny amount of oil in the holy temple lamp, but it miraculously lasted for eight days.

    We donĖt have access to the Hanukkah story in official Jewish literature.  The books of the Maccabees were not included in the final version of the Jewish Bible Ō most likely because the tale they tell doesnĖt reflect too well on the Jews as we sometimes like to see ourselves.  We donĖt generally celebrate military victories as religious holidays, anyway.  By consulting the Catholic BibleĖs Apocrypha (a collection of Biblical books that didnĖt make the JewsĖ final cut), or any good history of the period, we learn that the Maccabbean conflicts were largely a civil war.

    Israel had been under Greek control since Alexander the Great.  Although the Greeks first tolerated the local religions of the people in their provinces, the threat of Roman invasion encouraged less enlightened leaders, like Antiochus IV, to institute a state religion.  He campaigned hard to assimilate the Jews.  By the second century BCE, most Jews had already surrendered to the Hellenist way of life, even before certain Jewish rituals were declared illegal.  The Jewish priests were themselves collaborators, having traded in their sacrificial duties for nude wrestling in a gymnasium built next to the Temple.  This led to a new emphasis on Greek ideals such as the perfection of the body and encouraged many Jews to spurn circumcision Ō which they began to see as the desecration of one of GodĖs perfect creations.  Many Jews hid their circumcisions, and some even sought to reverse them through primitive surgery and other painful methods.

    The Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were a militant, fundamentalist minority (aka a Jewish Taliban) from the hinterlands, who had been watching their "decadent" urban counterparts in Jerusalem with horror for over a century.  But the voluntary reversal of circumcision was the last straw.  The Hasmoneans were totalitarian, believing that all aspects of life must be dictated by the Torah.  Their struggle was not against the Greeks but the assimilated Jews, whose altars they destroyed and on whom they performed forced circumcisions.

    Vigilante groups pushed Priests back into their original roles in the Temple until there was enough official Jewish support for a revolt.

    When it was over, the Maccabbees forced the male inhabitants of Jerusalem to undergo circumcision. (Flush with victory, they forced circumcision on the inhabitants of several nearby non-Jewish cities, as well.) They made themselves both the High Priests and the Monarchs of Israel, supplanting the Davidic line.  As a result, most Jews saw the Hasmonean refusal to submit to Greek culture and religion as a political struggle, with nationalist overtones.

    In truth, the war was not so much a rebellion against totalitarianism or anti-Semitism, but against the JewsĖ own waning support for circumcision.

    The Hasmoneans, themselves, became pro-Hellenist just a few decades later, their reign finally ending with King Herod.

    The Hanukah story was later revised by the Pharisees and the writers of the Talmud, who were contending with Greek and Roman problems of their own.  The miracle of the oil lamp was invented, and the holiday became the Ïfestival of light,Ó in the spirit of earlier solstice rituals.  It was considered a fairly minor holiday, rising in stature only as we have come to live amongst Christians, and felt the need to celebrate something as splendid as Christmas.

[b:909f5a0725]    Having brought out the noisy truth about Hanukkah, Rushkoff then, shockingly, does not call for an end to this militaristic, fundamentalist celebration as would seem to be the humanistic thing to do.  Celebrating such an event is like celebrating the Taliban’s rule over the Afghani people because the Taliban made sure that the Afghani people stayed pure to Islam, and didn’t drift off to the "evil ways" of secularism. 

    Since the story of Hanukkah is just such a case, and the supernatural under- (or over-) tones (the long-lasting oil which is symbolized by the menorah), were fictions meant to add a "holiness" to a violent and fundamentalist invasion and battle, an ethical reason to celebrate Hanukkah seems nonexistent. 

    Rushkoff seems to think that amid the horror of the Hanukkah story, we could gain from it the supposed virtue of a people struggling to keep their identity instead of assimilating into a larger culture, but these ends are not justified by the means we are celebrating here.  And even if they were, they would leave us with the notion that separatism and religious or cultural isolationism is better than becoming a part of greater humanity. 

    It is not as if people have to give up those aspects of culture which add to the diversity found in our species - food, dress, attitude - but what the Maccabees were unwilling to give up was a particular brand of religious piety; a fundamentalist religious zealotry which saw genital mutilation as holy and good; a separatist, isolationist and xenophobic ethnic nationalism.  These things are not only worth giving up, they must be if we are to be an ethical people. - Barry F. Seidman[/b:909f5a0725]


Barry F. Seidman
Exec. Producer of Equal Time for Freethought