Growing up, Chanukah was as benign a holiday as one could come across. It was the un-Christmas, a simple holiday celebrating the triumph of the few over the many and the reinstatement of Judaism as the standard practice in the land of the Jews, including the rededication of the defiled Temple. What could be problematic about a holiday where one lights candles, plays a game with a top, eats greasy food and chocolate coins, and collects presents for eight days?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Since starting to take Judaism seriously and actually applying myself to learn something about it, some of the complexity of this (and other) holidays has surfaced. Last year when attending a shiur on Chanukah, the scholar mentioned that while the events giving rise to Chanukah are surely worth celebrating, there is a tinge of foreboding in doing so, since some of its after-effects led to even worse problems, including the fact that in order to complete the expulsion of Assyrian Greeks and keep them out, the Jews made the fateful decision to invite Rome to intervene. (Students of history will note that the Romans were themselves rather difficult to dislodge after this, giving rise to near-total destruction of the land and a massive Diaspora that exists to this day.)
Others I have heard from about this holiday are disturbed by the religious fervor evident in the behavior of the Maccabees and their associates. At a talk at a Conservative synagogue many years ago, I heard the rabbi criticize the Jewish leaders of the rebellion as religious fanatics who roamed the countryside and forcibly circumcised Jewish men and boys. More recently, a friend expressed his discomfort in the post-9/11 world with the religious zealotry of the Maccabees, questioning where lies the line between how and why they executed their rebellion and what the Muslim terrorists did in America on 11 September 2001. Both the rav and my friend feel some discomfort with the notion of Chanukah as a celebration of religious extremism.
My most recent reading on Chanukah comes from Rav David Bar-Hayim, founder of Machon Shilo (the Shilo Institute) and a scholar who seeks to re-establish traditions of living and prayer that shed Diaspora influence (including the divide between Sefardi and Ashkenazi) and reflect the Jews’ return to Eretz Yisrael. Rav Bar-Hayim’s take on Chanukah, available at Machon Shilo’s website is entitled “Hannukah: Getting the Point”. In his drash, Rav Bar-Hayim gives historical perspective on the events that gave rise to the holiday. The picture he paints is one of a society that had become enamored of modernity and “civilization” to the point of losing its own identity. Not only was Judaism not widely practiced at the time, but its essential functions (Torah study, Shabbat observance, brit milah) were offenses punishable by death. And the Assyrian Greeks did not work alone to spread the Good Word of pagan Greek civilization; a group of wealthy, influential Jews who had wholeheartedly embraced the Greek way of life were willing and eager to assist them. While Matityahu’s slaughter of the Jew sacrificing a pig in Modi’in seems horrific to us in the modern day, it became a symbol of how close Judaism was to disappearing altogether. (I once heard a rabbi claim that the Christians should be celebrating Chanukah just as energetically as the Jews, since their own religion would never have come about if the rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks had not succeeded.) There are two questions that arise from an examination of this incident: 1) Was Matityahu’s action justified, and 2) Would any of us have the courage to die for our faith (as that Jewish pig-shochet-for-hire was required to do in that situation)? To the first, I suspect that the answer is yes. It was the first blow struck in resistance to the Greek attempt to eradicate Judaism throughout the land, and while gruesome to our eyes, stands in contrast to the number of Jews who were similarly murdered for practicing their religion in the land. Without that very public display of refusal, would there have been a rebellion? Would Judaism ever have been re-established? Would we be here as Jews today, or as something else? Or at all? Probably not. It’s impossible for any of us to predict how we would behave if faced with death, but for those Jews who were unable to conceive of living as pagans, participating in pagan rites (many of which involved the most appalling acts of violence, bestiality, and abominable sexual acts—like those performed by Zimri and Kosbi in front of the princes of Israel before being made into shishkebab by Pinchas), and witnessing the death of Judaism which they believed to be the only way to serve God and live an upright life, I have nothing but respect. Would life as a pagan under those circumstances be something we would want to live? That to me seems the essential question.
Still uncomfortable? Perhaps that’s one of the best parts of Judaism for me: no quick fixes, no easy solutions, no way out of having to keep thinking. Chag Chanukah sameach!