Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?
And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?
Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.
A decade earlier, Antiochus IV Epiphanes had assumed rule of the Seleucid Empire, which stretched farther east than Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire, from modern day Saudi Arabia all the way to what are now Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Antiochus appointed Jason—probably in reward for a bribe—to the governorship of Judea, then a client state of the Seleucids, and, in 167 BCE, Jason did away with Jewish law and rebuilt Jerusalem in a Greek model. This included banning genital mutilation and Jewish sacrifice, permitting Jews to marry gentiles and instituting an internationalist program exemplified by participation in the Olympic Games.
To be sure, Seleucid Judea, being an imperial protectorate, was hardly the democratic polis par excellence; widespread corruption and capricious political leadership combined with a measure of jealous authoritarianism hardly constitute the virtuous city. Nevertheless, a secular, multicultural state is subject to civic reform in a way that dictatorial theocracy is not, and the latter is precisely what the Maccabees sought to establish. (The Maccabees are routinely called a “rebel army,” but really this is a romantic and obfuscatory term; “terrorist militants” is a well chosen substitute, and the one we use for their contemporary analogues).
Judah Maccabee, whose father Matthias had had to flee Judea after killing a Hellenistic Jew for worshiping before an idol, served as the chief of that fundamentalist army, his brothers Jonathan and Simon occupying the upper lieutenancy. Their holy war featured the demolition of pagan altars in the villages, the ritual cleansing of the temple and compelling the circumcision of children. Their terror campaign worked and, in 165 BCE, after just two years of secular law, the Maccabees overtook Judea, establishing the political reign of the Hasmonean dynasty.
Not content with the victory, Judah continued the war—when was the last time holy war ended with the conquest of but one land?—and expanded the boundaries of Israel, setting a nationalist-expansionist precedence whose reverberations we (leave alone the Palestinians) continue to feel. Between Judah’s regime and the subsequent administrations of his brothers, the fanatical Maccabee Israeli army conquered the port of Joppa and the fortress of Gezer and razed the Acra in Jerusalem. Hasmonean rule lasted until 64 BCE, when the Romans moved in and Herod the Great became King of Israel—for more on that, see the gospels of the New Testament.
* * *
Judaism, as much as any other world religion, can boast an extraordinary history of secular thought. Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Kushner—who can think of better Jews than these or imagine, without anguish, a world devoid of their contributions? My own family’s ancestry is Jewish and we are ourselves devoted to secularism and the pursuit of a Judaism in the image of those named above.
Nevertheless, growing up, we lit the candles and sang the Hebrew prayer my mother could remember from her childhood (but—how Jewish—cannot translate to English). My father, for his part, is fond of proving that he can sing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” in Yiddish—his father escaped an Orthodox home at age 13, never to return—not that the rest of us are in any position to verify his rendition’s accuracy. Latkes (with sour cream and apple sauce, naturally), gelt (lousy chocolate, sure, but it’s shaped like money!) and dreidels came out once a year, in order, I’m sure I always knew, to make Jews feel better about not having Christmas, which is a big deal to the goyim (so big that the Myersons celebrate it too, and more enthusiastically than the Jewish consolation prize, to boot).
What a piercing irony, that secular Jews have taken to comforting ourselves in the yuletide season by celebrating the destruction of the Hellenistic Jewry, whose legacy we inherit, at the hands of fundamentalist fanatics who wouldn’t even consider us Jewish. With each lunatic attempt to expel Palestinians from their homes to make room for Orthodox settlers from Brooklyn, with each story of a Hasidic woman confined to a medieval lifestyle of bondage and repression born of superstition and uncritical faith, with each exposure of depravity and fraudulence in the communities who make the most exuberant claims to piety, it becomes clearer: the time has come for us to proclaim loudly that we have a better tradition. Let us celebrate the Hellenistic Jews and their struggle, rather than the violent extremists and their victory.
The prayer Jews are expected to say on the first night of Hanukkah (the only one my mother knew to teach us) translates thus: “Blessed are you, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.” Need anyone mention that the greatest Jewish tradition is not one of following any commandments whatever, but rather of investigating, examining, discovering? The secular Jewish tradition holds that it is through those processes that one learns truth, not through the revelation of commandment. Cast off that prayer.
The klezmer ditty, though, can stay. “One for each night, they shed us with light to remind us of days long ago.” Let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of what really happened in days long ago, and commit ourselves to reversing it.
* * *
The author is obliged to mention Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews along with the biblical apocrypha contained in the first and second book of the Maccabees, which provide the history presented here. For additional reading, please see relevant works by Christopher Hitchens and James Ponet, both in Slate.