It’s only mid-day and already more than several people have e-mailed me David Brooks’ NY Times editorial on the meaning of Hanukkah. As those who know and love me will attest, I am not a huge fan of the actual Maccabee story – so I was interested to read Brook’s fairly accurate historical retelling.
This insight, I thought, was especially spot on:
(The Maccabees) were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.
Not sure, though, about Brooks’ denouement – in which he offers his take on the central lesson of Hanukkah:
(There) is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.
(Hmmm, not sure I want to retell that stirring lesson as I light the menorah tonight.)
Truth be told, with every passing year, I find myself relying less and less upon Maccabean history – however watered-down – to provide me with a spiritual foundation for the observance of Hanukkah. I’m much more interested in the universal meaning of the festival: increasing the light during an increasingly dark time of year.
This meaning, by the way, is not lost on Jewish tradition. Witness this lovely parable from the Talmud (which may well describe the earliest recorded case of Seasonal Affective Disorder):
When Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!”
So he began keeping an eight-day fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, “This is the world’s course,” and he set forth to keep an eight-day festivity.” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a)
Isn’t this all the lesson we need? As the dark descends, Hanukkah comes to remind us that brighter times are in our future. Keep it in mind as you light the first candle tonight.
The Talmudic initiative to disassociate Hanukkah from the revolutionary violence of the Macabees is not unique to the Talmud. It exists in the books of the Macabees too. There are four different books with the title Maccabees. They are Macabees I through Macabees IV (available in Oxford’s Bible with Apocrypha for example). Macabees I contains the story we are familiar with. Macabees II retells the story by downplaying the role of the Macabees and increasing the role of divine intervention. Macabees IV takes the Macabees out of the story entirely.
I think that this is interesting because, not only do popularizes of the Macabees have to take from non-canonical texts for their version of Hanukah, they also have to be very selective in their use of apocryphal texts because the general thrust of these texts is consistent with the downplaying of the use of force in the Talmudic account.
Macabees II and IV attribute the victory to substitutionary atonement of Israel’s sins through the martrydom of Hannah and her sons. It is implicit in the retelling of Macabees II (compare the events in I and II and you will see how the significance of the martyrdom is enhanced in II) and very explicit in Macabees IV.