Friday, December 18, 2009

Chanukah 2009 (Iconoclasts)

Like shoes, iconoclasts come in all sizes and shapes. But unlike shoes, iconoclasts—people who either regretfully or gleefully attack traditional beliefs or practices they consider to be based on false information or mere superstition—mostly fall into two broad categories: those who direct their comments primarily towards the kind of religious leaders and scholars who study religion intellectually and (at least ideally) dispassionately, and those who address themselves to the faithful themselves. In both cases, however, the basic goal is invariably said to be just the same: to rid religion of the burden of fantasy, thus allowing it to flourish both in the pulpit and the pew in an atmosphere of unfettered intellectual integrity.

This two-tiered approach to spiritual skepticism is easily discernable out there in the world. And thus is it that the same Christian world that has to deal with Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan, the academic founders of the famous/infamous Jesus Seminar devoted to uncovering the truth about the historical Jesus, also has to deal with John Shelby Spong, one of my personal favorite authors on Christian theology (and one of the truly great iconoclasts of our or any age) whose books are almost exclusively directed towards lay readers. Within Islam, the situation—although less overt and dramatically less well known—is similar: the same Muslim world that has to grapple with the books of Nasr Abu Zayd, the great Quran scholar who was forced to leave his native Egypt and settle in Holland because of his insistent view that the Quran be read in light of the society and age in which it was produced, also has to deal with the writings of Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam whose writing about her faith is solely directed at a non-academic, lay audience. (The book is very well worth reading, by the way…and I think I’d think that even if the author hadn’t grown up in Richmond, British Columbia, where I myself served a congregation for thirteen years in the 1980s and 90s.)

And so do we too fit into this two-tiered concept: the ground-breaking, deeply iconoclastic 2008 book by Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, is written specifically for an academic audience and in a style that will be difficult for any non-specialist to pierce. (This is a special shame, I should add, because the book itself is just as stimulating as it densely written.) And then, writing for hoi polloi, we have people like David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, whose iconoclastic piece on Chanukah was published about a week ago.

Brooks apparently thought his readers (and, I can’t keep from thinking, especially his readers in the Jewish world) might be interested in hearing the “real” story about Chanukah. And so, basing himself at least partially on the writing of Jeffrey Goldberg (a staff writer for The Atlantic Monthly whose earlier work you may have read in The New Yorker or The Forward), he sallied forth into the mine field that is the effort to focus traditional observance through the prism of historical accuracy. A few years ago, David Wolpe, the rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, attempted to do the same thing with respect to the exodus from Egypt. The responses—vitriolic in Rabbi Wolpe’s case almost to the point of being violently so—were no less predictable than they were disheartening and distressing. And the responses to David Brooks’ piece in last week’s paper, although distinctly less ferocious, have been equally unsurprising. He’s ruined Chanukah. He’s destroyed our faith in Chanukah. He’s made Chanukah into something ordinary, something banal, something unworthy of annual commemoration. He’s denigrated our traditions by subjecting them to the unfairly harsh light of historical realism. He’s rained on our parade. And those are just the responses I myself either heard personally or read on-line!

And what was it that David Brooks wrote that was so shocking? He wrote that the “real” story of Chanukah is that the king of Seleucid Syria, the slightly mad Antiochus IV, was not just acting on his irrational, anti-Semitic own when he enacted his famous decrees outlawing the traditional observance of the most famous Jewish rituals. (“Seleucid” is the name historians have assigned to the empire founded by one Seleucus, a general in the army of Alexander the Great who seized the opportunity to have his very own country when Alexander’s death and the absence of any credible heir jointly opened the door to his seconds-in-command to set themselves up as the kings of any number of discrete pieces of their late master’s formerly gigantic empire.) And also that Antiochus was basically siding with one side in what was rapidly on its way to becoming a fierce civil war between two opposing groups of Jews: those who wished to embrace what they considered the finest parts of Greek culture—Greek drama, for example, or Greek gymnastics or Greek philosophy or poetry—and layer it over the foundation of Jewish culture as it had evolved to their day, and those zealots who wished to remain totally unaffected by alien culture and who wished to retain Jewish ritual and practice precisely as it had been bequeathed to them by their ancestors. For a while, people were able to agree to disagree. But both sides went over the top eventually.

It’s the rest of the story that seems truly to have rankled, however. The Hellenist types (that is, those drawn to Greek culture) didn’t find reading Homer and Sophocles to be quite enough and ended up insisting also on transforming the Temple itself into a kind of Greek sanctuary and, to take the books of their foes at face value, on worshiping totally in the Greek style. And it went even further than that—since the Greek ideal of the perfect male body did not include the absence of a foreskin, it became fashionable in at least some radical quarters to attempt surgically to reverse the effect of circumcision. And the traditionalists did their part to widen the gap as well, marring their devotion to tradition with real xenophobia, insisting that nothing of value could be imported into Jewish culture, that everything Greek—even the sublime works of Plato or Aristotle—needed to be wholly rejected by any who would see themselves as faithful to the Torah.

One thing led to another and soon enough the discontent each side felt when considering the other’s position morphed into real acts of violence. A civil war, if it did not quite break out, was clearly in the offing. And that, apparently, was when Antiochus chose to step in and to attempt to restore order. That he did so by issuing decrees intended to bolster the side in the dispute he considered more consonant with his own worldview was regretful (because it only sharpened the resolve of the traditionalists not to compromise at all), but not all that impossible to understand. And the rest, more or less, is history.

The irony, also referenced in David Brooks’ essay, is that the Maccabees themselves—the very family that produced the military leaders that defeated Antiochus’ army—that they themselves ended up unable to keep at least some trappings of Greek culture from insinuating themselves into Jewish life. They invented a festival to commemorate their military victory, which was certainly more of a Greek than a Jewish thing to do. The Books of the Maccabees report that they used the language of Greek constitutional law to establish their right to govern despite the fact that there was no precedent at all for that kind of secular governance in Jewish tradition. Within a few score years, their descendants had taken the throne of Israel for themselves despite the fact, as I mentioned last week, that they were neither of the tribe of Judah nor descendants of King David. But they never lost their inability to tolerate religious pluralism or to appreciate the concept of religion as a matter of personal choice. Eventually, the Maccabees’ descendants became so disunited that the Romans were able to annex their kingdom and make of it a part of the Roman Empire.

When it comes to war, the great perk of winning is that you get to name the conflict and write the “authentic” account of its outcome. If the British had beaten the colonists in the 1770s, the American Revolution would have been named the Colonial Revolt and it would be as little famous now as the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1610-1614 or King Philip’s War of 1675-1676, wars that led nowhere and have more or less long since been wholly or almost wholly forgotten. If the South had won the Civil War, it would now be called either the War of Confederate Independence or the Second American Revolution. And so the Maccabees, by winning the war, got to frame the story their way. And, indeed, so to this day we teach our children that the Maccabees were good guys fighting against an evil king out to destroy Jewishness, even to obliterate Judaism itself. Had they lost, of course, we’d be remembering things entirely differently...and we’d be celebrating the victory of culture over intolerance. And then, of course, there’s also the slightly unsettling question of which side we ourselves would have been the more likely to support had we been living at the time, we who have somehow managed to integrate baseball and the theater and secular literature and membership in gyms and health clubs into our traditional pattern of Jewish observance. (There’s an important thought there too, but I’ll leave it unexpressed. After all, I don’t want anyone to accuse me of ruining Chanukah for them!)

I liked David Brooks’ piece. I thought it was clever, interesting…and ultimately more or less correct. The great lesson of Chanukah—or at least the great lesson that Chanukah bears for adults—doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, come from contemplation of the Maccabees’ famous victory over Antiochus’ armies, but from a serious owning up to that victory’s distinctly less famous back story featuring an almost complete lack of mutual tolerance between Jews of differing opinions and the way that lack of tolerance quickly turned into violence. There’s a profound lesson to be learned here, but like most great lessons this one will only be heard by those willing to listen carefully and closely…and to allow what they learned about history to displace what they’ve always supposed to have been the case regarding events they imagined were clear-cut and simple but which turned out not only to be far more complex than supposed, but also to be incredibly more stimulating.

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