Bah, Humbug…

judah.jpgAt the risk of coming off as Rabbi Grinch, I think it’s time you knew the real story of Hanukkah…

The brave heroes of our story, the Maccabees, came from a priestly dynasty known as the Hasmoneans. The leader of the Hasmoneans, Mattithias and his son Judah were what we might call today religious zealots. In 167 BCE they led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid rulers in the land of Israel but they also fought bitterly against the assimilated, Hellenized Jews of their day.

You can read all about this in the Books of the Maccabees, which can be found in the Apocrypha – a collection of extra-Biblical writings that never quite made the final cut. After plowing your way through these exceedingly graphic and nasty accounts of of Jewish fratricide, forced circumcision and other bloody examples of Jew against Jew, you’ll understand why. (You’ll also understand why Mel Gibson was once interested in developing this material into a movie…)

While we are fond of telling the story of the Maccabean victory and their re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, we don’t often tell the story of what happened to the independent Jewish state they established in the land of Israel afterwards. That’s because for the most part, the sequel to the Hanukkah story was a fairly ignoble chapter in the annals of Jewish history.

The Hasmonean dynasty eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when these priestly rulers weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. So much for the second Jewish commonwealth.

Yes, boys and girls, that’s the real story of Hanukkah. Don’t worry, I haven’t Scrooged-out here completely – I’ll be lighting the Hanukkiah tonight just like you. But maybe, as we light our candles, we should take some time out to ponder how we might commemorate this complex legacy as 21st century American Jews.

In an article last year in Slate, Rabbi James Ponet considered this very question by asking “was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity?” Great question. If you could put your dreidel down for just a moment, I’d love for you to leave your own thoughts and comments.

6 thoughts on “Bah, Humbug…

  1. Rachel

    It’s a nasty and disturbing story, to be sure, and it’s not one I ever learned in Hebrew school.

    The best answer I’ve found isn’t really an answer, per se, but more of an attitude toward the whole thing. It behooves us, at least as adults, not to whitewash these aspects of our history. (I’m still not sure kids need to hear this — I certainly wouldn’t have been able to assimilate word of zealous Jews slaughtering other Jews for their halakhic transgressions.) We need to wrestle with this stuff.

    But it also behooves us to make the leap that the rabbis made when they ensured that our focus, looking back on Chanukah, could be on the miracle of the oil instead of just on the military history aspect of things. The oil seems like more of a fairy tale, sure, but it’s also a profoundly beautiful story, and one that continues to resonate. In a time and place where God’s presence seemed absent, the light of divinity shone forth because our ancestors were willing to take the spiritual risk of awakening to it. That’s a miracle we can relate to even in our day.

    Chag sameach!

  2. eselinge

    I’m suspicious about how the Slate Rabbi phrased his question. To speak of the “survival of Jewish identity” is already to assume that there was a “Jewish identity” before the revolt that resembles our ideas of “Jewish” and even “identity.” Historically speaking, that’s a double anachronism. Before the Hasmonean conquests, “Jewish” was probably “Judean”; from what little history I’ve been reading, it was the incorporation (more or less by force) of neighboring non-Greeks that produced this new, broader identity (Jews who were not Judeans). As for “identity,” that too strikes me as a modern concept–and realistically, we’re talking about an “identity” so vastly different from ours, centuries pre-rabbinic, that I suspect we’d be very, very startled to encounter it as “ours.”

    When someone asks that question, Brant, isn’t he or she really asking something like “how far should we as traditional Jews go in defending our vision of Judaism, since our very survival at stake?” Or, conversely, “how far can we, as progressive Jews, go in our incorporation of Western, non-Jewish culture before we go too far, thereby severing our ties with the haredim or push the rest of the community into dangerous backlash?” Questions worth asking, but probably not ones for which the actual, historical Hanukkah story gives us an answer!

  3. eselinge

    P.S. So maybe the question to ask, which the story can answer, is ““was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the creation of what we think of as ‘Jewish identity’?”

    (Or is that a tautology, to which the answer can only be “yes”? After all, the identity that would have emerged without that war would of course have been different.)

  4. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

    I guess if Jews typically answer a question with another question, Jewish academics tend to answer a question by parsing that question ad infinitum!

    OK, let’s make it easier for Eric (and anyone else who is struggling with Ponet’s assumptions): how might we find meaning in the celebration of Hanukkah today, given the complex and often disturbing legacy left to us by the original Hanukkah story?

  5. David Pinzur

    Ok, I’ll give this a shot, but from an entirely different approach. I’m not sure when exactly I learned the true military story of Hanukkah, but certainly more than 30 years ago. I have gotten cynical about Hanukkah and the competition with Christmas that non Jewish people seem to force upon me. Hanukkah is most definitely not a substitute for Christmas! It’s not even a very good “Hallmark Holiday”. That said and given the more honest story of Hanukkah, I chose to make it a much more personal holiday…. As my wife makes batch after batch of latkes and the rest of the family devourers each plateful, I give thanks to my wife for continuing the tradition I remember growing up. My mother use to do the same for her family. As we ate our meal she would continue to make latkes and when she was finally finished, the rest of the family would patiently sit at the table as she finally got to sit down and eat her dinner. I still remember my grandmother doing the same for her family. The smell continues in the house for a few days and I still get that warm feeling as I return home from the outside world as the smell of latkes permeates the house.

    To me, this is the miracle of Hanukkah!

    PS. And her latkes are great!

  6. Rich Ehrlich

    Like many stories in our sordid past this is swept under the rug for obvious reasons. We have a long rich history of choosing the wrong, immoral or even evil choice and then doing our best to forget or portraying the actions as some how positive. This is how we and many other groups, civilizations and nation-states have survived over the centuries. If these stories were told to us as children or even as adults how could we believe in the high moral ground some of us choose to take. Victimization was the choice of the priestly authors of the bible and we’ve carried that through the centuries. In many case for justifiable reasons (babylonian exile, spanish inquisition, european pogroms, the shoah and on it goes. But what is fascinating in this country is that many of us have not learned our own history. This is not the Jewish way and we need to explore this. Additionally, we need to explore what judaism is, without victimization. The current attacks on J street tell us that many of us are not ready to confront our present reality, just like our forefathers were uncomfortable with much of our past.


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