Hanukkah: The Pathos Of Purification

Hanukkah starts today, and the British novelist Howard Jacobson is not amused. The story of the Maccabees beating the Syrian-Greeks sounds suspiciously like "wish fulfillment," he writes. The miracle of the oil sounds saccharine. The songs are dull. Next to Christmas, what Jew is not feeling short-changed?

[H]ow many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.

Hanukkah should "merge with Christmas" or "be spiced up with the sort of bitter irony at which the Jewish people excel: "Instead of the dreidel, give the kids their own cars for Hanukkah, in memory of the oil that should have run out but didn’t." Cute.

WELL, HERE IS a little "bitter irony" for you, Mr. Jacobson, which suggests, alas, "contemporary relevance," too. On the eve of Hanukkah, the Israel Democracy Institute released its annual report, summed up lugubriously by Haaretz's editors:

Almost all the survey's findings point to this trend. A majority of the public supports predicating voting rights on a declaration of loyalty to the state; only 17% of the public believes the state's self-definition as a democracy should take precedence over its self-definition as Jewish; an absolute majority believes that only Jews should be involved in decisions crucial to the state; a majority supports allocating more resources to Jews than Arabs; a third of Jewish citizens support putting Arab citizens in detention camps in wartime; and about two-thirds think Arabs should not become ministers.

Just what does the eclipse of democratic standards in Jerusalem have to do with Hanukkah? Not much, unless you think the study of history is actually meant to teach us something.

Consider that by the time the Maccabees were in revolt against the pagan culture of Greece, the latter already encompassed articulated notions of individual human dignity--from Aristophanes to Aristotle--that no sword could efface. A part of what made the reach of Greek civilization so powerful, even eventually in Rome, was that it brought with its pagan cults ways of looking at nature, and human nature, that spoke to the hearts of educated people and would forever inspire doubts about mere loyalty to the tribe.

Yes, the terrible oneness of God was a beautiful idea as well. But it, too, as Christians would show, might be made more personal and, besides, it was not the only idea worth cherishing. The fanatic decision to restore the orthodox law, the priestly cult, the idea of a holy people, the sacrificial altar, etc., was not unambivalently progress, not even to Judeans. Any visitor to excavated towns like Tzippori today can taste the pleasure of the hybrid. Indeed, the real story of Hanukkah can be summed up by the fact that, just two generations after the Maccabees chased the pagan Hellenizers from the temple (in a lake of blood, if you go by Maccabees Book II), the Hasmonean dynasty the Maccabees founded willingly cut a deal with the pagan Hellenizing Romans.

In other words, when you hear the word purification, a cringe or two might be in order. The same when you hear about the heroism of Judean fanatics, from Judas Maccabeus in 167 BC, to the leaders of the Jewish Wars in 66 AD, to Bar Kochba in 132 AD. Their risings against empires and defiance of worldly cultures brought much death but no lasting victories. Judas Maccabeus's purification of the temple, which clueless Jewish children sing little ditties to at sundown, was accompanied by Taliban-like revenge slaughter against the slaughterer, Godless occupiers, and the purging of and forced circumcision of Hellinizing Judeans. Again, Maccabees Book II:

Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men. And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men...Now when Maccabeus had his company about him, he could not be withstood by the heathen: for the wrath of the Lord was turned into mercy. Therefore he came at unawares, and burnt up towns and cities, and got into his hands the most commodious places, and overcame and put to flight no small number of his enemies. But specially took he advantage of the night for such privy attempts, insomuch that the fruit of his holiness was spread every where.

Was it not a miracle just to survive such times?

FORGIVE ME, MR. Jacobson, but if you do not see in contemporary Israel people all too eager to spread "the fruit of his holiness," you are not reading Israel Democracy Institute polls. Worse, you are not acknowledging how much the concept of democracy, from ancient times to modern Israel, depends on the very concepts of individual human conscience and free-minded beauty the Maccabees, in their devotion to the holy, sought (and failed) to defeat--notions of conscience without which the Talmud itself would have been inconceivable, but that's another story.

Anyway, here is another take on Hanukkah and Christmas, which I've posted annually since I launched the blog three years ago this week. Count me with the candles and the Hellenizers, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore.