Monday, December 26, 2005

Why I am so proud of my son. (A guest editorial by my pride and joy)

“Here's to Judas Maccabeus, boy if he could only see us.”
-- Tom Lehrer

Last night marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which commemorates the victory of the Hasmoneans against Antiochus IV and the Seleucid Greeks in 164 BCE. The Hasmoneans (usually called Maccabees), defeated a powerful occupying force, rededicated the Temple, and established a theocratic dynasty that lasted almost 80 years. In these uncertain times, the story of Chanukah has something to offer every reader: neoconservatives may rejoice at the toppling of a Middle Eastern tyrant, grass-roots liberals may celebrate the victory of the weak against the mighty (as long as they do it over secure phone lines), and Jews of faith may offer a prayer of thanks that God does not forsake His covenant. But we must also read the story of Chanukah as a cautionary tale.

The Chanukah story with which most folks are familiar tends to stop at the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil, which is the part of the story that gives us the eight nights of candle-lighting. This makes for a good little celebration, especially when you figure in the tradition of eating deep-fried foodstuffs to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Unfortunately, the holiday falls on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which is usually around the 25th of December. Since Christmas is such a big deal, Chanukah turned into a big deal, for fear that Jewish kids would feel left out. These days, Chanukah is treated as if it were on par with Christmas, which bothers different folks for different reasons.

Now, there are those who would have you believe that America is waging a war on Christmas. It’s a claim that I’ll dignify with counter-argument just as soon as my friends come home from Iraq. As far as I can tell, the front lines of the war on Christmas are in department stores, where clerks are greeting people with “Happy Holidays.” Some people object, claiming that this is an attack on the Christian faith. They are idiots, for reasons explored at length by Big Mitch and his sources. I am not a fan of “Happy Holidays” either, but my reasons for disliking the greeting are twofold, and they do not change the fact that said people are idiots.

The first reason for disliking “Happy Holidays” is that it conflates Chanukah with Christmas. The anniversary of Jesus’s birth seems like it might be an important thing for Christians to observe. While the commercialization of Christmas strikes me as vaguely obscene, I do not begrudge the Christians their spectacle. After all, it comes but once a year. But there’s no reason to make a similar fuss about Chanukah. Not only is Chanukah a minor holiday (about which more below), the appropriation of Gentile tradition was the very root of the Hasmonean revolt. “When the Jews came under Grecian rule, their real enemy was Hellenization,” writes Max I. Dimont in his indispensable Jews, God and History. Greek culture exerted an overwhelming influence on every aspect of Jewish life. It was not Greek rule that radicalized the Jews, it was the way in which their culture was subsumed by Greekness. Antiochus IV appointed a Jewish High Priest named Jason under whose stewardship, Dimont writes, “Greek games performed by naked Jewish boys became a common spectacle in the Temple courtyards.” (And you thought 50 Cent at a bat mitzvah was over the top.)

Faced with this sort of thing, more and more Jews began to object to Greek influence, until an anti-Hellenization movement called the Hasideans overthrew Jason and the Seleucid appointees and wiped out the Hellenized Jews. Modern Jews who celebrate Chanukah as if it were an eight-day Christmas would do well to remember that the story of Chanukah started with a fight to preserve cultural uniqueness.

The Hasidean victory was short-lived. Antiochus IV sent his armies into Jerusalem, slaughtered the Hasideans and whomever else happened to be standing around, and re-established a Hellenized priesthood. But then he overplayed his hand. Facing military failure abroad (he’d just gotten punked by the Romans, and nobody likes getting punked by the Romans), he did what any moron would do after taking over his dad’s job and finding it harder than he’d imagined: he started curtailing freedoms at home. He outlawed the Sabbath and circumcision, which really got the Jews riled up. Dimont goes on: “The Hasidean party, whose members had been practically wiped out in the Seleucid reprisals, now found new adherents among those Jews who previously had stood for moderate Hellenization.” The new anti-Hellenization movement gave way to the Hasmonean revolt.

Here is where the neoconservatives might want to put down their dreidels and think about how well Western influence (for which read democracy and Coca-Cola) will fare among third-world Muslims weary of seeing their coreligionists getting shelled. You see, we’ve reached the point at which some parallels might be drawn. All this pseudo-Yuletide Chanukah hoopla (say that five times fast) has obscured some of the real story of Chanukah. Antiochus IV is usually cast as a Disney villain, when in fact he was just a spectacularly irresponsible leader. He tried to build a global empire by fighting unwinnable wars. Rather than encouraging diversity as his predecessors did, he tried to undermine it, by imposing a uniform set of cultural values through appointed officials. Finally, he proved a tyrant, by taking away freedoms that were theretofore considered inalienable. After a while, it bit him in the ass. I would say some of the Bible-thumpers in office would do well to heed the lessons of this particular Bible story, but there are a couple of problems. The first is that if the Bible-thumpers in office actually heeded the Bible once in a while, our nation wouldn’t be in such a terrible fix. The second is that, well, Maccabees 1 and 2 aren’t actually in the Bible. At least not the Jewish Bible. Which brings me to my next point.

Another reason for disliking “Happy Holidays” has little to do with Christmas and a great deal to do with the problematic nature of Chanukah itself. There’s a reason that Chanukah isn’t a major holiday, and that Maccabees 1 and 2 weren’t redacted into the Jewish Bible. It has to do with the fate of the Hasmoneans, which may prove instructive.

After the revolt, governmental power was placed in the hands of Simon, the last surviving Hasmonean brother. As the son of a priest, he was made High Priest, and as the leader of the revolt he was made governor of the Kingdom of Judah. Simon’s descendents were anointed as royalty, and there the trouble began. Although the Jews had united against Antiochus IV, once they had a kingdom of their own they broke into political factions, which were still the major Jewish cultural movements at the birth of Jesus: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. (I’m pretty much cribbing all of this from Dimont at this point, so read him if you don’t believe me). Despite the fact that the priests had just waged a war against Hellenization, the Sadducees were more favorably inclined to the Greek influence. This is not all that confusing when you consider that the priesthood and the sacrificial rites were themselves taken from Egyptian custom, so that the fresh-from-slavery Jews would have a familiar way of relating to God. The Hasmonean king pissed off the Pharisees and then went with the Sadducee ticket, which pissed them off even more.

The Pharisees, for their part, hated Greek influence, and moved away from Temple Judaism to create a brand of faith based on communal worship and pragmatic legal theory. The rabbinic tradition founded by the Pharisees provided the seed for the vast tree that is modern Judaism. Meanwhile, the Hasmoneans were in rapid decline. The dynasty was marked by every act which may define a tyrant: forcible conversion, violent suppression of dissent, hiring of mercenaries, and intrafamilial murder. After a couple of civil wars, the kingdom was conquered by Pompey, who turned it into the Roman province of Judea. The fall of the Hasmonean dynasty made possible the ascension of Herod, who was appointed king of Judea and who, if the Gospel of Matthew is to be believed, actually did wage a war against Christmas, so to speak.

In other words, the glory of the Hasmoneans pretty much ended where the Chanukah story tends to leave off: at the rededication of the Temple. Nowadays, we overlook the epilogue, but the rabbis, descended as they were from Pharisees, did not. Chanukah was downplayed as a holiday, and its story left out of the Bible, because it sparked a chain of events that nearly destroyed Judaism. We cannot celebrate Chanukah--and we surely cannot reduce it to a simple festival with generic greetings and glossy trappings--without considering the scope of Jewish history and the price the Jewish people have paid for following bad leaders.

Once again, we should look for parallels. By linking religion and government, the Hasmoneans degraded both. By imposing religion on others, they weakened their own. By meeting dissent with despotism, they forfeited claims on legitimacy. And by seizing and maintaining power through corrupt means, they made their downfall inevitable. As Bob Knight of the Culture and Family Institute says, “If you can‘t understand the force of history...” See, “War on Christmas, Part Deux,” infra.

So, this holiday season, let us take a stand against extremism in all its forms. Let us honor our individual heritages by learning from those who came before us. Let us bring about regime change through peaceful means, and let us choose leaders who respect that greatest of all gifts, freedom.

"… and tell ’em Young Ike sent you!"


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful article, Isaac. I completely agree with the importance of separation of church and state (just look at what the opposite notion has done throughout history -- and not just in Jewish history or just in the Middle East), As a cautious pessimist, I expect the worst to result from our misdirected war in Iraq. I do not believe that the U.S. can "impose" freedom and democracy on any nation, especially an Arab nation, regardless of our true motives, our money, or how long we stay there. Happy Hannukah to all the Schapiras! I know better than to say "Happy Holidays." Gary

micki said...

I love your blog!
Good to know there are kindred spirits out here in NetLand!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.