Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chanukah 2011

So what’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Chanukah? I suppose most of us would instantly conjure up a mental snapshot of a family—perhaps even our own family—gathered around the menorah, lighting the candles, and singing Maoz Tzur. Some of us might think first of the miracle of Chanukah, of the old story we all know about the tiny cruse of oil that should only have held enough oil for one single day but out of which miraculously poured eight times that much…so that the great menorah in the almost-inmost sanctum of our holy Temple could not only be relit, but would remain lighted until fresh oil could be prepared under the watchful supervision of the High Priest of Israel. Still others will think of the more gustatory trappings of the holiday: chocolate Chanukah gelt, fried latkes, deep-fried jelly doughnuts, or some other set of semi-poisonous delights we all seem to be entirely able to consuming without an ounce of guilt (perhaps I’m saying more here about myself than I meant to) for the course of eight long, cholesterol-laden days of family togetherness.

Myself, I try to spend at least some time in the course of the holiday thinking about the shikkutz m’shomeim. The what? For something that rests at the very heart of the holiday, it’s odd how few people even know about the riddle of what the shikkutz m’shomeim actually was—or even who have heard of it. But the shikkutz is at the very center of the story we tell, or at least it should be…and if its precise identity remains a mystery none has yet solved in a universally convincing way, then the riddle itself constitutes a puzzle we have lost interest in solving only to our own detriment. I’m guessing most of my readers won’t ever have heard of it. In some books it appears in its ten-dollar English-language version as the “abomination of desolation.” Does that help? Some translations offer the even less decipherable “desolating sacrilege.” Is that better? I didn’t think so. But the shikkutz m’shomeim is not only something you should know about, but it’s something I think we could all profit from discussing seriously.

The historical sources for our Chanukah festival aren’t that many. And they aren’t in agreement about many minor details of the story and a handful of truly important ones. There is the ancient book called the First Book of the Maccabees, written in Hebrew towards the end of the second century BCE by a Jewish author in Maccabean Jerusalem who wished to record the events that led to Jewish independence from the Seleucid empire (the sort-of-Greek empire from which the Maccabees wrested, if not de jure independence, than at least the de facto right to behave formally as an independent state) in the decades immediately prior to his own day. There’s the work confusingly called the Second Book of Maccabees—confusingly because it has no literary or historical relationship to the First Book, from which it is an entirely distinct work—which was written in Greek, probably in Alexandria, in the same time frame as First Maccabees, but which is itself only a one-volume summary of a much longer work in five volumes penned by one Jason of Cyrene (in today’s Libya) recounting the history of the Maccabees from the perspective of the Greek-speaking diaspora. (The Jews of Egypt and Libya spoke Greek in those days; it was their translation of the Bible into Greek, in fact, that today is the oldest still-extant full translation of Scripture into any language at all.) Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also took a crack at the Maccabees, discussing their story in detail in his Antiquity of the Jews and drawing, apparently, on many no-longer-extant sources. And then there’s the Book of Daniel, the sole source for the story that actually is in the Bible.

The Book of Daniel is a complicated work that was clearly put together from several anterior sources, but which almost definitely reached its final form—the form in which we can find it in any Bible—in Maccabean Jerusalem. The reasons scholars think that would take us too far afield here for me to discuss in detail, but the short version is that the last few chapters of the book, written in obscure, gnomic Aramaic that only a true literary or historical sleuth could love, appear to be discussing not the story of Daniel, the personality featured in the first part of the book who lived centuries earlier at all, but rather the events of the Maccabean revolt itself. And at the center of that account, as well as the account in First Maccabees, is the shikkutz m’shomeim that is what I want to write about today.

At the heart of all these stories is the notion that the Temple was desecrated and then restored to its original state of unsullied purity through the brave actions of the Maccabees, itself a term of obscure origin that came to denote the five brothers who led the revolt against the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV. (Did you know, by the way, that there are reliable portraits of Antiochus? He’s the only person in the Chanukah story to have left behind pictures of himself, mostly on coins he had minted with his own image stamped on them, on of which is featured above.) That part, we all know: some version of the purification and rededication of the Temple is at the heart of every version of the Chanukah story. Indeed, the name of the holiday itself means “Dedication” (in this sense, “Rededication”) and references that specific event. But what exactly was going on in the Temple during the years leading up to its recapture, repurification, and rededication?

Let’s listen to the author of the First Book of Maccabees, describing the edicts set in place by the king to buttress those Jews who wanted to “reform” Judaism by turning it into a Hellenistic cult:
The king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah ordering that the citizenry should follow strange new laws. He forbid the sacrifice of traditional burnt offerings and libations in the Temple, and demanded that the Jews profane the Sabbaths and festivals. Furthermore, he ordered that the sanctuary be polluted, and that there be set up altars, sacred groves, and special chapels devoted to the worship of Greek idols, and that in the Temple they sacrifice swine's flesh, and unclean beasts. Moreover, the king commanded that the Jews leave their sons uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation to the end that they might forget the law, and abandon its ordinances. And whosoever would not do according to the commandment of the king, the king further said, he should die. To that end, the king appointed overseers over all the people, commanding the cities of Judah to worship only in accordance with these new regulations. As a result, many evils were perpetrated in the land…and then, on the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev, in the one hundred and forty and fifth year (of the Seleucid empire), he had the abomination of desolation set upon the altar, and altars built dedicated to the Greek gods throughout the cities of Judah on every side. They burnt idolatrous incense at the doors of their houses, and in the streets. And when they had rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, they burnt them with fire.

That’s pretty strong stuff. But what exactly was this “abomination of desolation” that was set up upon the altar itself in the Temple? That, the author forbears to say. The Book of Daniel is no clearer. Cast here as a prediction rather than as a historical account, the author imagines old Daniel looking centuries in the future and seeing his, the author’s own day: “They (in context, the armies of an alien, yet unnamed king) shall profane the sanctuary…and take away the daily sacrifice, and they shall set up the abomination of desolation in that place. Furthermore shall (this king) corrupt by flatteries those who do wickedly against the covenant; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and eventually they shall take action….” But what actually was it? That neither author wishes to say.

Some scholars, relying on an old rabbinic tradition that permits mentioning the names of idols only when those names are deformed in some clever way so as simultaneously to insult the gods they are imagined to represent, that the Hebrew shikkutz m’shomeim was meant to reference Zeus, whose name in Aramaic was sometimes Baal Shamayim, “the Baal of heaven.” The word shikkutz would then be an insulting reference to Baal, just as the term has survived in the vulgar speech of some North American Jews in a slightly bowdlerized version not used in decent discourse. And the m’shomeim part would simply be a pun on Shamayim, not referencing the god as being “of Heaven,” but as being destructive and repulsive. So okay, it’s an insult…but the question of what the thing itself actually was remains unanswered. Some imagine it to have been a statue of Zeus that was set up atop the altar so that every animal sacrificed there would be offered up beneath the stony gaze of the chief of the Greek pantheon. Other scholars have imagined it to be a meteor of some sort, or to reference the pigs themselves that were now to be offered up in the Temple as a sign that the Jews had signed on to one of the cardinal elements of Hellenistic philosophy: that, there being only one God, it would be a sign of brotherhood for all to worship God in his most elevated and sophisticated manifestation as mighty Zeus, the name given him by the most elevated and sophisticated of his followers, the Greeks themselves.

The whole miracle story featuring the tiny cruse of oil appears first in the Talmud and has no real antecedent in any of these contemporary, or near contemporary sources, all of which understand the great accomplishment of the Maccabees to have been the removal of the shikkutz from the Temple. (There’s a different story featuring a miracle regarding Temple oil at the beginning of the Second Book of Maccabees, but it’s entirely different from the story we all know from the Talmud.) Whether it was an actual statue, or some other thing that so revolted the ancients who knew exactly what it was that they could not bring themselves to say its name aloud or to describe it other than cryptically, who knows? But in the contemplation of that riddle lies a lesson for us all.

What I get from this whole story about the shikkutz m’shomeim is that even the most sacred precincts can have introduced into them items that turn them from places of pious worship to places of grotesque depravity. The place, the sanctum, the sanctuary, therefore, is only space. Holy space, perhaps…but only when holy things happen there. To suppose, therefore, that the mere existence of a sanctuary is enough to guarantee that all that unfolds there is by definition sacred work…that is, if anything, the precise opposite of the lesson these ancient sources gather (at least in my own mind) at this time of year to remind us. For a community to be worthy of the designation of k’hillah k’doshah, it needs to do holy things, to do holy work, to seek to know God not merely by existing in some room designated as holy space, but to take to heart the ideals of faith that are preached in that place…and then to act on those ideals to nudge the world even just slightly close to the messianic moment that will herald the redemption of humanity. The Temple retained its sanctity, of course, even when the shikkutz was in place. But it was a dormant value in those dark days, not something that existed actively but only passively within the folds both of its history and its destiny. That could be a satisfying thought…but the Maccabees didn’t think it was enough and neither should we. To be worthy of being called a “holy community,” a k’hillah k’doshah, its members must further God’s work on earth.

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