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Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights

2010 December 1

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.

18 Responses
  1. Kyle Schwartz permalink
    December 2, 2010

    You think that history lesson is surprising? Look up what we did after we hung Haman on Purim. Isn’t the contrast between nerdy, weak Jewish stereotypes and our vicious history interesting?

  2. Zack Weiner permalink
    December 3, 2010

    This is hardly a fair assessment of the Chanukah Saga.
    First off, “Genital Mutilation” is a very poor way to describe circumcision, a practice not only mainstream today in America, but something the vast majority of families have done all over the continent.
    Secondly, “Fundamentalist” in this article seems to be used as an insult, it is put in the context of something terrible and primitive. What is wrong with standing up for the fundamentals of your society and religion? Not to mention the fact that the Hasmoneans stood up for an incredible set of fundamentals that have led to Monotheism and the two largest religions on the planet, Christianity and Islam. And what has the philosophy that Jason espoused given the world.
    Where is the religion and system the Seleucid empire and the Hellenists tried forcing on Judea? The school of thought routed from Judea by the Hasmoneans is now gone from the earth while the SAME traditions and fundamentals Jews espoused and bled for then are followed today.
    You praise scientists like Einstein and present them as the true jewish heroes. But how would we have Einstein without the Hasmoneans? How would we have our Judaism today without the “fundamentalists” fighting for us back then? The short answer-we wouldn’t. Judaism has survived mass, national destruction. It has not survived a mass, national conversion. It wouldn’t have. In all likelihood Judea would have sunk into obscurity, losing it’s unique religion and forever changing the face of our planet. That means no diaspora, no Einstein maybe even know Germany without Christianity but thats a whole other “What if?”
    Don’t believe it? Just look at the once powerhouse next door. Egypt .A nation once the undisputed superpower with an immense and rich religion and culture that accepted hellenism. Now look where one of the longest lasting ancient religions thrives-in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Fighting for the fundamentals is not just extreme, it is Extremely Heroic. American revolutionaries fought for Fundamental Democratic Rights. Martin Luther King fought for Fundamental Human Rights. why can’t Jews fight for Fundamental Religious rights? The Hasmoneans saved Judea from Hellenism and Idol Worship, and gave it Monotheism. Now how many candles would it take to light for those who have benefited from the Fundamentalists victory?
    P.S Jews sacrificed animals to one g-d. Hellenists sacrificed to twelve. And if you want to talk about imperial expansion, what is the hellenist empire rooted in anyway? The second largest military conquest of all time.

    • December 3, 2010

      Okay, systematically:

      1. No amount of ubiquity (and I’d be interested in discovering where the figure about the vast majority of families around the continent comes from) constitutes an argument that circumcision is not genital mutilation. Sheer non sequitur.

      2. Religious fundamentalism is indeed to be regarded with hostility, fear and ridicule by any right-thinking person. Jews, leave alone our monotheistic cousins, are under strict instructions, for instance, to stone any woman to death who does not bleed while consummating a marriage. I suspect I needn’t go into all of the other heinous offenses to conscience that a fundamentalist, enacting the word of the almighty as preached in the good book, would have to commit, but I’m happy, upon request, to share links that will expand on this point. Insisting on strict and illiberal assent to scriptural demands has always resulted in repression, violence, terror, misery, beggary and exploitation. I can scarcely believe I need to make these points.

      3. Hellenism has died and monolithic orthodoxy has survived, and, again by way of non sequitur, you seem to argue that the very fact that this is true begets the inescapable assessment that it’s good. No, sir: theocratic totalitarianism based on pre-literate tribal superstition (the legacy of Jerusalem) is not preferable to liberal democracy based on a philosophy of virtue (the legacy of Athens). Again, this seems patent — who, living under a theocracy could think any different? Your “Hasmonean ergo Einstein” argument is equally befuddling. If you mean to suggest that, if the state of human affairs had been radically changed at one point, then the subsequent history of events would have also, you have made a completely uncontroversial and banal point that doesn’t speak to anything I’ve written. But what “Einstein” means here, and the quality for which he is rightly admired the world over (except by religious fundamentalists), is scientific brilliance, which would have come about no matter what, and, I’d argue, an awful lot more quickly, had reason and philosophy been enshrined in the Western ethos to the extent faith and submissiveness were.

      4. You claim that fighting for religious fundamentals is extremely heroic, in which case the burden is on you to explain why Al Qaeda, the Ku Klux Klan, the Spanish Inquisitors and so forth should be considered villains of history. Or shouldn’t they? I am faced with no such contradiction-justifying prospect. The reason fundamental human rights and fundamental democratic rights are incompatible with fundamental religious rights is obvious: Jews are commanded to enslave other tribes, to reduce women to chattel, to enact shockingly violent atrocities, &c. in Exodus and Deuteronomy and especially Leviticus. (Again, this is leaving aside Christians and Muslims who are similarly commanded). Meaningful democracy and human rights doctrines all prohibit this type of barbarism. The argument you advance, apparently without irony, is so bizarre and inchoate as to suggest you mis-typed it.

      5. You’ll find nowhere in my piece (or indeed in any of my writings, here or in any other form of publication) a defense of military conquest or imperial expansion, which I generally consider to be the greatest evils in history. Pound at doors, friend, by all means, but do make sure they’re actually closed before you do.


  3. Zack Weiner permalink
    December 3, 2010

    It seems I need to highlight the points in your article I was referring to and refuting. Overall I was addressing the various times that you twisted words and gave normal, healthy customs and traditions evil labels.
    First off, “Genital Mutilation”, Hardly a non-Seququeter considering it was not only written about in your first paragraph, but was given as one of your two examples showing us how radical the extremist maccabee’s were. In any case, It’s hardly a radical idea, in fact, if anything it was innovative, why else would these qoute be true “Circumcision rates…… Rates in North America are in the 60-80% range, owing primarily to the U.S. medical establishment’s traditional support of routine newborn male circumcision”

    Yes you can call it Genital Mutilation, but by doing so it comes off as an obvious and biased label of something so common place in our world today.
    I’m not familiar with the practice of stoning women who fail to bleed on their honeymoon and would appreciate a link or reference to that law. In addition, the beauty of Judaism is that it is evolving. From day one to day 10,ooo and beyond. It is a tremendous document, open to interpretation and debate about exactly what the Torah means in many parts. However their are countless laws in the Torah or talmud that are remarkably modern. In fact the two examples you give in your article in the first paragraph were really extremely modern. Jewish sacrifice was limited to a select amount of animals, and human sacrifice was totally and completely abhorred and banned. Something extremely unusual for those brutal ancient times when the religion was just beginning. Circumcision is a practice with tremendous medical advantages.
    In addition one example of a theocratic government based on religious fundamentals that did lead to repression and misery was the first temple in Israel which thrived for centuries under a strict set of laws.
    “Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud…… we are ourselves devoted to secularism and the pursuit of a Judaism in the image of those named above.” My point on this was simple. You value these Jews and their contributions but without Judaism, these men would not have been born, or at least born in Germany. The Jewish scientists you listed were part of a long genetic line leading back to Israel. A genetic line protected by a fundamental Jewish law prohibiting intermarriage. If the Hellenists would have had their way on Judea, the tiny ethnic group would have rapidly assimilated and intermarried. Merging into the larger Mediterranean community. The Diaspora that brought Jews to Europe and led to Einstein’s discoveries could not have occurred. There would be no unique religion or ethnic group to be exiled. Just a small unruly Hellenistic nation. If this argument is “befuddling” consider reading the opening chapter of “What if”. A fantastic and prestigious book that discusses an earlier threat to Judaism in it’s opening pages. It not only uses similar logic to mine it offers evidence to back up both claims.
    And lastly, your argument for the Hellenists. Nothing is more egregious than the idea that the Maccabees were fighting enlightened supporters of Democracy. This is not even debatable, it is just an obvious factual oversight. Were the Hellenizers proposing “Meaningful democracy and human rights doctrines”? Were they even part of a democracy? No! The Seleucid empire was a corrupt monarchy! This type of Hellenism was not the ground breaking philosophy that grew in Greece. This was just a land hungry empire. Now what was so enlightening about these reforms? Sacrificing to more g-ds? You tout their new society as one based on reason and “comity with national neighbors”, more like subservience to the Seleucid empire.
    And you claim they tried to bring “Liberal Democracy”? Was that what the Jews refuted? The Seleucids and Jewish Hellenists were not democratic. They were the anti-thesis. In fact you can go back even further. The Seleucid empire was only possible because Of the king Alexander. A Macedonian Monarch Who not only conquered the east but attacked and beat down the real democrats in greece. Now would that really be preferable to our monotheistic heritage? This hellenist model that the Maccabees opposed was slightly archaic then (compared to Athens) and would be beyond primitive today.
    And finally, if Imperial Expansion is one of the greatest historical evils what does that make these hellenists? The Seleucid empire, was built exclusively out of imperial expansion. And the entire group, the entire movement that you call modern, That you present as moral and democratic, That you say would be preferable to what the Maccabees defended, Hellenism in the east came out of the second biggest campaign of Imperial Expansion ever. In all of history. If imperial expansion is the greatest evil, would that not make Alexander, the worldwide hellenistic movements father, histories greatest villain. Would the Seleucids, following his imperial expansionistic traditions, be right up there to in the list of historical atrocities. And what would you call a resistance that opposes such extreme and powerful evil? Extremely Heroic.

    • December 3, 2010

      1. The non sequitur I pointed to was your argument, continued here, that circumcision, because it is widely practiced, deserves to be thought of favorably. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. After all, a study recently showed that an enormous number of men in South Africa readily admit to having raped women. That the practice is common should not compel anyone to reconsider its righteousness or adjust the language he uses to describe it so that it is obfuscatory or apologetic. To the contrary, the more widespread a barbaric practice is, the more vigorously morality and decency demand we oppose it. It might well have medical advantages, and people should therefore be allowed to take advantage of it. But that it is compulsory to subject infants to the knife, victims who have no say in it – that is the objectionable and revolting aspect of the practice.

      2. You say that I’m “biased,” as though this were not a polemic; yes, I have opinions and have marshaled arguments to support their rightness. I lament that you were under the impression that you were reading a work of unbiased journalism or something.

      3. Deuteronomy 22:20-21 holds that a woman who does not bleed during the first act of sexual congress with her new husband must be stoned to death. In the King James version of the Bible, it is worded thus: “But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” Hoping that it is not uncouth of me, I’d urge anyone who glorifies fundamentalism to conduct a rigorous study of Levitivus (at the very least) and get a firm grasp on what the fundaments are. (Keep a special eye out for things you find would be “beyond primitive today”).

      4. I am interested in the “interpretation and debate” that leads to the conclusion that this means anything other than what I’ve claimed. Your claim that the beauty of Judaism lies in the fact that it is subject to evolving moral standards and philosophical argument is one that would be held as intolerable by fundamentalists after the Hasmonean model; this type of talk is only permissible because of the efforts of secularists.

      5. I suspect it was a typo that led you to make my point that there exists many an “example of a theocratic government based on religious fundamentals that did lead to repression and misery.” Presumably, you meant “didn’t,” in which case, I would ask you to examine the condition of women, homosexuals and unbelievers, living under strict Jewish law here and other places in the world. The ways in which it “thrived” did not apply to the populations that it conquered and subjugated. Indeed, America can meaningfully be said to have “thrived” while enslaving its African captives. You have proven exactly nothing on that point.

      6. My darling dear, I simply will not let you get away with claiming that it was the influx of religiosity and theological fanaticism into Europe that led to Einstein’s discoveries. Indeed, the historical record shows clearly that all major advances in scientific thought (from Galileo to Darwin, before, after, and all in between) were vigorously opposed by theistic power, their postulators often tortured for the offense of discovering and proposing them. Scientific discovery (including whatever medical research you’d cite to show the positive effects of circumcision) has always threatened the monopoly religious powers have claimed on the truth, and you do your argument an enormous disservice to claim anything else. Einstein’s insights into physics are not descended of his Jewish heritage; they are descended of his rejection of Judaism and any theistic principal; let’s get real about that.

      7. I understand that you would lament the loss of Judaism to assimilation into Hellenistic society, but for the victims of religious mendacity and nefariousness, this would have been cause for vibrant celebration. And there is no reason to suppose that, had Judaism died out a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Christ, history would have ceased to progress, which is what I gather you’re inexplicably arguing. (I suppose it’s important to note that, Judaism being a belief set, and not a genotypic condition, the “genetic line” you wish were uncorrupted by intermarriage with gentiles, is mythological – we do not inherit our theological beliefs genetically).

      8. I very specifically, I think you’ll find, condemned the Seleucid Empire as undemocratic and corrupt. But the historical record (see: Josephus, to whom I linked) indicates that Seleucid Judea participated in the Greek games, which does indeed indicate a comity with national neighbors, however contemptible empires are. But no indictment of Seleucid politics or morality is axiomatically an endorsement of the contemptible empire that replaced it.

      9. I did not claim that the Seleucids tried to bring liberal democracy. You’re wrong.

      10. You cannot simultaneously claim that Seleucids and Jewish Hellenists were anti-theists and that they sacrificed animals to twelve gods. Pick one.

      11. I am anti-imperial, but that does not mean that I will support counter-forces to empires who themselves hold imperial ambitions (with the added brutality and penchant for atrocity that arises from a theocratic dogma). This is why I oppose and hate American military hegemony and yet do not stand with its would-be undoers from al Qaeda and likeminded organizations.

  4. December 5, 2010

    “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.”

    So I guess you’d be fine with the universalist West conquering the Muslim world, defiling the shrines in Mecca and Medina, outlawing “genital mutilation” (and, by the way, it’s not genital mutilation–the genitals are intact, the covering thereto is removed, but let it pass), forbidding the teaching of the Koran, Islamic law, etc.

    And then when the benighted little savages rise up, you’d be for their destruction except, of course, for the enlightened collaborators.

    The fact is, the revisionist view you present is not so radical. Every year I hear Rabbi Schorsch pretty much present the same story on NPR. He’s just a bit more sensible and learned than you.

  5. December 5, 2010

    Maybe give them a nice statue of George Bush they can worship as a god instead of that invisible Allah! 🙂

    • December 5, 2010

      Obviously, I don’t want the West conquering the Muslim world. How you gleaned that from my proclamation of hatred of and opposition to American military hegemony is mystifying. What I would like is widespread democratic, egalitarian, secular revolutions in those countries, revolutions that do prohibit Sharia Law and implement constitutions that include affirmative unalienable rights for all individuals. (The emoticon suggests that your George Bush dig gave you enormous satisfaction, but I can’t for the life of me tell why: it wasn’t funny, salient, informed or meaningful).

      On the Schorsch matter: I don’t aspire to espouse views others find radical; on the contrary, I see it as perfectly reasonable and moderate. And I am persuaded by good arguments, not by your (or anyone else’s) assessment of who is sensible and learned.

      • December 6, 2010

        I made a very simple analogy. Sorry you didn’t get it.

  6. Zack Weiner permalink
    December 6, 2010

    Here’s why the western secularists were far from modern or morally superior- The western reforms were in large part imposed on Judea by the Seleucids, who had annexed the territory through imperial expansion. The Hasmonean revolt was aimed at imperial occupiers in addition to hellenists attempting to force religious changes on the Jewish nation. Making the supposedly modern side  imperial expansionists who wee trying to deny Jews freedom of religion, and their land. 
        You stated that imperial expansion is the worlds greatest evil. That alone should deny the tremendous Seleucid empire a moral high ground. But that’s not all, the hellenists in Judea were not supporters of democracy and were the product and endorsers of imperial expansion. So what western reform were they bringing to the table exactly, The olympics? Not to mention the mixed hellenist history. The Greek west was in many ways more barbaric and dangerous then the early  Jewish practices. (the death penalty was extremely rare during the reign of the Jewish court the senheindrin)  meanwhile much of the so called modern greek hellenist philisophy was rooted in bloody, barbarian practices. Spartans would kill deformed babies and brutally enslaved an entire people for generations.  Greek states warred with each other for centuries, killing thousands. Eventually they were united and promptly launched an enormous war of global imperial expansion slaughtering thousands upon thousands of innocents along the way. These blood thirsty and war like tendency also entered Judea along with modern philosophy.
        Judea was a theocracy rooted in Talmudic laws. A society largely produced  by rational debate and conversation over hundreds of years prroducing a constantly modernizing religion. This practice was not secular, the most religious  live by this. The Hellenists were trying to impose a new religion in Judea, and make the Jews pays the hellenist overlords taxes.   In a nutshell, hellenists occupy the land and try to  force a new religion on the citizens while Maccabees fight for independence and freedom to practice their religion. Hardly a battle between the modern  and The extremists, more  like imperial oppressor versus popular independence fighters. 

  7. Zack Weiner permalink
    December 6, 2010

    1-The quote on circumcision mentioned widespread medical support
    2-I know this is far from un biassed, but things presented as facts should not be tainted with opinion, only the truth.
    3-the kings James bible is not my book, and often misquotes the Torah.
    4-learn about the religion you are bashing, as stated above the Talmud is the product of the religious, not secularists.
    5-The King was limited by the Seinhandrin, a Jewish court which shown above was from brutal. It was highly unusual for a court to have killed more than one person in 60 years
    6-Countless religious Jews have made medical advances, the rambam wrote many important religious writings in addition to medical research. My point on Einstein, he was jewish, without the religion and unique genetic heritage,  his ancestors would have mixed into the world population possibly ending the family or at least producing an Einstein with a totally different genetic makeup.
    7-Wrong. Anyone with a Jewish mother is Jewish according to the Torah based definition
    8- Ok they played in the olympics. Iran did to in 2008, would you say they enjoy national comity?
    Also, Antithesis, not anti theists. 

  8. Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
    December 6, 2010

    Sorry to interrupt, boys. You’re doing quite well on your own. Though we do seem to be getting severely bothered by a number of stress-induced misunderstandings.

    I don’t think anyone is advocating militant anything. This is clear, no? The argument seems to be that if left with two (obviously) less-than-adequate models, one might be inclined to choose the secular version rather than the literalist religious one. At least one might better understand what would otherwise be the mindless celebration of the triumph of Iron Age backwardness. This bar seems quite low and innocuous to me.

    Einstein surely wouldn’t have been born if anything else at all had ever happened. This doesn’t seem to require much debate.

    The Torah, however it may be valued, is quite old and is certainly not an authority on genetics, and it is consequently forgivable that it misunderstood heredity. Science has evolved greatly since then, and it has become emphatically clear that though one may decide how heredity works, this decision has no consequence to the matter in fact.

    Mutilating another’s genitals – by any method (teeth or blade), toward any purpose (medical or aesthetic) and irregardless of popular fashion – seems to warrant categorization as Genital Mutilation.

    It should also be clear to everyone engaged in this lively exchange that the Torah in all its versions is quite stuffed with wicked instructions that typically-minded people do well to ignore. This fact, to me, tends to fundamentally comprise the old scroll’s moral integrity, though others try boldly to navigate this incongruity. In my opinion, the adventure often wrecks them and leaves otherwise mindful people defending mindless nonsense. I think we’d all do much better to agree flatly that the book has its ups and downs, its pleasant bits and its horrific bits, and take up our discussion from there.

  9. December 7, 2010

    As a practising Jew I found this really interesting – dare I share it with my family, and other thinking members of the Jewish community? You betcha!

  10. palio permalink
    December 8, 2010

    While Myerson makes very good points in his essay, and in fact ones with which I generally agree, he does says things that are extreme to a degree that undercuts his arguments. Some of those points are elementary. For example, we don’t equate circumcision with rape: it is an accepted medical practice which causes only seconds of pain to the infant and has no negative sequelae. It affects the foreskin only; it is not the genital mutilation performed on girls in Africa. So why use the language of one to describe the other? Should it be offered only after the boy is 18? Parents make many decisions for their infants.

    But most troublesome to me is the way in which Myerson addresses the objections
    of Zack Weiner. He is rude and taunting to him. For someone who appears to appreciate Greek culture and value secularist democracy, his responses are those of a bully. I actually agree with almost all of the substantive points he makes, but not at all the way in which he defends them. Extremism in the defense of the secular is no different from that in defense of religion. He decries the closed thinking of fundamentalist religion, but speaks in a manner that embraces that which he abhors. Imagine Plato or Socrates responding as he does!

    The modern, secularist Jewish tradition that encompasses great achievement stems from a complex fabric. Jews since the advent of rabbinic Judaism have been literate. It is a commandment to understand, and this has lead to the rabbinic tradition of learning by means of discussion between two people. Everything is questioned. Do not work on the sabbath. If you move a bench in your garden, is that work? What if you have moved it so that an elderly person can sit? What if… It is no accident that this tradition of learning has produced great scholars, jurists, writers, and scientists. Judaism has existed as an intersection with the Christian world. Jews have had to be adaptable, not masters. Therefore the questioning that Myerson applauds actually stems in part from the rabbinic schools, which were products of commandment.

    Jewish thinkers have wondered whether the brilliant accomplishments of the past will continue in an American and world culture in which Jews are totally accepted as equals. Will intermarriage essentially destroy that which makes Jews different? Will true acceptance eventually erase all distinctions to the point that Jews will be no more educated, and accomplished, than any other group?

    To understand commandment is is to understand humility. It is an important part of Judaism. Further, Myerson appears to believe that religion in itself cannot contain the seeds of advancement, but rather that it comes only from the rational or secular. This is simply not true. The questioning, humanistic aspect of Judaism has been the force behind its advancement over the centuries.

    The changes in our own society over the last hundred years did not come solely from the intellect and rational thought. Much of it, for instance, has come from one person’s ability to empathize with another: freeing of the slaves, human rights, women’s rights, and so on. It is exceedingly complex; the rational secular side of society is only a part of it.

    Truly fundamentalist groups, in any culture or religion, have rarely accomplished anything which we admire. I am completely with him on that. There is a central core of ultra-orthodox Judaism that is truly cut off from modern life, and in fact despises it. But around this core there are many forms of Judaism that embrace various parts of the religion in ways that enrich our lives and give us significant connection and cohesiveness. Myerson does not appear to have an empathic understanding of his own religion.

    There are many traditions which have celebrated a distortion of the original events in order to make a noble or patriotic point. Thanksgiving is one. The Alamo another. The Magna Carta a third. So modern Jews celebrate a distorted message in Hannukah. He is (in my mind at least) right about that. I do feel, as he does, more kinship with the Greeks and secularized Jews than with the Maccabees. I celebrate what Hannukah has become, not what it was.

    Yet is not Weiner also quite correct to assert that the assimilation of that little Jewish state would have completely changed the history of the world? The religion the Maccabees were defending was not as Myerson characterized it. Judea was, as Weiner said, “A society largely produced by rational debate and conversation over hundreds of years producing a constantly modernizing religion.” It contained the spark of moral progress, which had actually begun to crumble in the Greek world with the conquests of Alexander.

    I disagree with Weiner that Judaism has survived while Greek culture and civilization has not. In fact, we are all Greeks today, from our schools, sports, philosophy, democracy, plays, and a culture that values exploration and discovery over revelation. Modern civilization is a blending of the Greeks, the Romans, the Jewish tradition including Christianity, with the seminal thinkers of the last two thousand years. And all of that progress did not come from the secular.

  11. Salome permalink
    December 13, 2010

    J.A. Myerson seems to be making a polemical argument for secular enlightenment over religious fanaticism – a worthy concern in light of our contemporary world. Nevertheless, I think an honest appraisal of the history requires a more nuanced approach. Yes, the Maccabees were fighting assimilation into Hellenistic culture, but they were also rebelling against a political crackdown impinging on their freedom to worship and live according to Jewish tradition. Were they “terrorists” or a minority band of freedom fighters resorting to guerrilla tactics as their only way of successfully confronting an oppressive occupational power? It is tempting to draw historical parallels to contemporary situations, and people tend to do that in ways that conveniently support their particular agenda.

    For instance, the Seleucid ruling power was hardly the face of religious moderation that Myerson would have us believe. Here is a straightforward synopsis of the situation:

    In 168 BCE, the ruler of the Syrian kingdom, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, stepped up his campaign to quash Judaism, so that all subjects in his vast empire–which included the Land of Israel–would share the same culture and worship the same gods. He marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on the altar, and desecrated its holiness with the blood of swine. Decreeing that studying Torah, observing the Sabbath, and circumcising Jewish boys were punishable by death, he sent Syrian overseers and soldiers to villages throughout Judea to enforce the edicts and force Jews to engage in idol worship.

    Myerson’s bias is clear when he asks the reader in not so many words: do you side with religious fanaticism, ritual sacrifice and genital mutilation? (An aside: This “genital mutilation” is today a recommended medical procedure for newborns regardless of religious affiliation. As far as pain goes, the baby boy rarely reacts with anything more than a momentary kvetch. I can testify that there was no residual discomfort exhibited by my own 2 sons, none whatsoever.)

    Josephus, by the way, is an interesting source, but he was a captured Judean officer who established his reputation by writing history for Rome during the time of the Roman Judean wars. He may well have depicted the Hanukkah story in a way that would not have justified rebellion against the ruling world power of the day. An interesting bit of trivia: Josephus could boast direct lineage to the Hasmonean dynasty.

    It is ironic and true that in time, the Hasmoneans fell vulnerable to the very corruption and seduction of power that they initially fought to overturn.

    So, in a nutshell, there is much worthy of discussion, but Myerson’s position is too pro-secular enlightenment for my liking and too dismissive of the many interplaying nuances of that historical event and its consequences.

    Factual misrepresentation and strident blog replies risk undermining an argument’s credibility.

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