Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chanukah 2007 (2)

I have slightly mixed feelings about Chanukah. Mostly, I love it. I have the nicest memories of Chanukah when I was a boy, and, maybe even more so, of celebrating the holiday when my own children were very young. I like latkes (which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, I'm afraid) and I like sufganiot, and I like the house being filled with the light of the candles. I even like the weather. (The first year we lived in California, it was seventy-five degrees outside on the first day of Chanukah. That wasn't the only reason we left, but it's just not natural to light the menorah wearing shorts. There really has to be a bottom line.) And I also like singing the traditional songs and, in general, the sense that the festival, as I wrote last week, is, almost above all else, a celebration of the inviolate nature of the Jewish home and, by extension, the Jewish family. With none of that do I have even the slightest problem.

But then there's the history involved. We usually like to paint the holiday as an "us versus them" kind of thing. That's how we tell the story in Hebrew School, and it's how most of us learned it ourselves as children: there was a wicked king named Antiochus who once declared war on the Jewish people, only to be defeated in battle by the brave Maccabees. Whom Antiochus was king of, exactly, is usually left a little vague. It's usually the Greeks or the Syrians or the Syrian Greeks who are the enemy...but without anyone explaining who these people were or why they were so hostile to the innocuous idea of Jewish people observing the rituals of their own faith. Of course, it hardly matters—these people, whoever they were, just take their place among the endless array of enemies that have tried to destroy us, as the Haggadah says, bekhol dor vador, in every generation, without it being that important that we know much about them. What matters, after all, is not what they were all about, but what we would have suffered had they succeeded in their plan to annihilate our ancestors' faith. And that, we all can imagine with no difficulty at all.

The only problem is that the story isn't quite correct as generally told. There was a king named Antiochus, and he did send his generals to Israel, then a province in the great Seleucid empire that stretched from Turkey to Afghanistan. But the detail we love to forget is that this wasn't some sort of insane campaign that the king chose to pursue for no reason at all other than innate anti-Semitism, but the semi-reasonable, if dramatically overblown, effort of a reigning monarch to end a civil war in one of the provinces of his empire. And it's in that context, I believe, that the edicts prohibiting, among other things, circumcision, need to be understood. We like to ignore the fact that there was a civil war raging...between Jews eager to shed particularistic ritual and embrace universal values (and the trappings of the universal religion of Greece), and those who wholly rejected even the slightest innovation in Jewish life if it was imported from anywhere else.

To American Jews, it will sound like a big fight over nothing...but that's because we understand that most of secular culture is not inconsonant with most of Jewish life. So we go to the theater, to the gym, to Yankee Stadium or to Shea, to the beach...without feeling that we're abandoning our Jewishness...and, yet, we also understand that there are lines no Jew can or should feel comfortable crossing. (And, for the vast most part, we don't cross them.) But this kind of thinking was unknown in ancient times. Both sides were intractable: the Maccabees and their supporters wanting nothing at all of secular culture, and the innovators wanting to import everything possible without exercising any critical evaluation of any sort at all. There was no common ground. For a while, the status quo held. And then, at a certain moment, irritation turned to hostility, and then hostility to violence. And the king, seeing clearly that the reformers were likely to be more useful subjects than the traditionalists, chose to support the side he felt closest to emotionally. And then, amazingly—and this is the real miracle of Chanukah—he lost. The Maccabees seized the Temple, re-instituted the traditional norms of worship, then invented a new holiday to mark their success. The rest, you know.

When I said I felt a little ambivalent about Chanukah, it's really not about the latkes. It's about the sense that, at the core of the holiday, lies the chilling truth that, absent compromise, the Jewish people can just as easily go to war with itself as it can live in peace. That the story of Chanukah is really far more of a cautionary tale for adults than a heroic story for children. That extremism in the cause of faith, both on the side of tradition and on the side of innovation, can only lead to misery and destruction. And that, in the end, no one really wins a civil war, not really, not permanently, not ultimately.

I'd like to write more about these topics eventually, but I write today mostly just to wish all of you a very happy Chanukah, one filled with light and gladness, and with all the best of God's blessings. Chag Urim Sameach to you all! And may the spirit of liberality, compromise and mutual respect become as familiar to all of us—and to Jewish people everywhere—in the year ahead. (December 6, 2007)

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