Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah: The Pathos Of Purification

Hanukkah starts today, and the British novelist Howard Jacobson is not amused. The story of the Maccabees beating the Syrian-Greeks sounds suspiciously like "wish fulfillment," he writes. The miracle of the oil sounds saccharine. The songs are dull. Next to Christmas, what Jew is not feeling short-changed?

[H]ow many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.

Hanukkah should "merge with Christmas" or "be spiced up with the sort of bitter irony at which the Jewish people excel: "Instead of the dreidel, give the kids their own cars for Hanukkah, in memory of the oil that should have run out but didn’t." Cute.

WELL, HERE IS a little "bitter irony" for you, Mr. Jacobson, which suggests, alas, "contemporary relevance," too. On the eve of Hanukkah, the Israel Democracy Institute released its annual report, summed up lugubriously by Haaretz's editors:

Almost all the survey's findings point to this trend. A majority of the public supports predicating voting rights on a declaration of loyalty to the state; only 17% of the public believes the state's self-definition as a democracy should take precedence over its self-definition as Jewish; an absolute majority believes that only Jews should be involved in decisions crucial to the state; a majority supports allocating more resources to Jews than Arabs; a third of Jewish citizens support putting Arab citizens in detention camps in wartime; and about two-thirds think Arabs should not become ministers.

Just what does the eclipse of democratic standards in Jerusalem have to do with Hanukkah? Not much, unless you think the study of history is actually meant to teach us something.

Consider that by the time the Maccabees were in revolt against the pagan culture of Greece, the latter already encompassed articulated notions of individual human dignity--from Aristophanes to Aristotle--that no sword could efface. A part of what made the reach of Greek civilization so powerful, even eventually in Rome, was that it brought with its pagan cults ways of looking at nature, and human nature, that spoke to the hearts of educated people and would forever inspire doubts about mere loyalty to the tribe.

Yes, the terrible oneness of God was a beautiful idea as well. But it, too, as Christians would show, might be made more personal and, besides, it was not the only idea worth cherishing. The fanatic decision to restore the orthodox law, the priestly cult, the idea of a holy people, the sacrificial altar, etc., was not unambivalently progress, not even to Judeans. Any visitor to excavated towns like Tzippori today can taste the pleasure of the hybrid. Indeed, the real story of Hanukkah can be summed up by the fact that, just two generations after the Maccabees chased the pagan Hellenizers from the temple (in a lake of blood, if you go by Maccabees Book II), the Hasmonean dynasty the Maccabees founded willingly cut a deal with the pagan Hellenizing Romans.

In other words, when you hear the word purification, a cringe or two might be in order. The same when you hear about the heroism of Judean fanatics, from Judas Maccabeus in 167 BC, to the leaders of the Jewish Wars in 66 AD, to Bar Kochba in 132 AD. Their risings against empires and defiance of worldly cultures brought much death but no lasting victories. Judas Maccabeus's purification of the temple, which clueless Jewish children sing little ditties to at sundown, was accompanied by Taliban-like revenge slaughter against the slaughterer, Godless occupiers, and the purging of and forced circumcision of Hellinizing Judeans. Again, Maccabees Book II:

Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men. And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men...Now when Maccabeus had his company about him, he could not be withstood by the heathen: for the wrath of the Lord was turned into mercy. Therefore he came at unawares, and burnt up towns and cities, and got into his hands the most commodious places, and overcame and put to flight no small number of his enemies. But specially took he advantage of the night for such privy attempts, insomuch that the fruit of his holiness was spread every where.

Was it not a miracle just to survive such times?

FORGIVE ME, MR. Jacobson, but if you do not see in contemporary Israel people all too eager to spread "the fruit of his holiness," you are not reading Israel Democracy Institute polls. Worse, you are not acknowledging how much the concept of democracy, from ancient times to modern Israel, depends on the very concepts of individual human conscience and free-minded beauty the Maccabees, in their devotion to the holy, sought (and failed) to defeat--notions of conscience without which the Talmud itself would have been inconceivable, but that's another story.

Anyway, here is another take on Hanukkah and Christmas, which I've posted annually since I launched the blog three years ago this week. Count me with the candles and the Hellenizers, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore.


Bella said...

I admire Mr. Avishai for his learning. I found The Hebrew Republic a thrilling proposal. But, readers of this blog should read Benny Morris's new piece in Tablet -- a far more realistic analysis of the situation than Mr. Avishai's constant haranguing of Israelis for being less than saintly. If only our interlocutors were as we would like ourselves to be.

Harriet said...

How is it "haranguing of Israelis for being less than saintly" to point out that democracy is no longer valued by the majority of Israelis? The Israelis may have their reasons for wanting democracy or not, but their country is being sold to Americans as the unique hope of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. That's clearly not the country they want anymore, but very few people are willing to point that out. For those of us who care about Israel's future as a Jewish and a democratic state, Mr. Avishai is doing an invaluable service.

Potter said...

Thank you for this BA, and the last link:

The point is, maybe we can help each other, Jews and Christians, during this time of year. Maybe we have something to teach each other. God is a mystery, yet we are blessed. Break the idols.

And the "good news" link after that no longer valid but I am curious about it.

About the terrible fire destroying precious forest in the Carmel Mountains I am struck by all the nations, regardless of their criticism of Israel, willing to help, to answer the call for help. Will this possibly put to rest that Israel does not stand alone, that it might risk for peace?

The flames-- will they bring enough light along with the destruction?

Y. Ben-David said...

More evidence that the Palestinians have finally adopted Dr Avishai's advice and are now giving up the path of conflict with Israel, now have discovered the advantages of "pragmatism" and are now dying to make peace with Israel so that they can start making as much money as possible:

Potter said...

more pragmatism:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has warned he may dissolve his self-rule government and ask Israel to resume full control of the West Bank if troubled peace talks fail.
Dismantling the Palestinian Authority would be a last resort, Abbas told Palestine TV in an interview broadcast late Friday. However, his comments marked the most explicit warning yet that he's considering a step that could crush lingering hopes for a Mideast peace deal.
If Abbas were to take such a step, Israel, as a military occupier, would have to assume full responsibility again for 2.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel was relieved of that financial burden with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, as part of interim peace deals.

Associated Press via:

Y. Ben-David said...

The Palestinian Authority received vast sums of money every year from the US and EU. A large part of the Palestinian population is dependent on this money. Do you seriously think that Abbas is going to give this up and the political power it gives him?
Abbas has threatened to resign many times in the past.
Arafat also used to threaten to resign if he didn't get his way. Authoritarian leaders frequently use this threat to force others to do their bidding. Do they ever really carry out these threats?

Potter said...

Do they ever really carry out these threats?

They don't until they do- and a moment may be arriving- you know, a "tipping point" when conditions are ripe. That will force others to make moves. It does not take an authoritarian leader per say, just a leader who is smart and more interested in results for his people than power for himself.

Abbas does not strike me as a man more interested in power than, say, Netanyahu.

Potter said...

oops! per se

Gibson Block said...

Bernie, didn't you forget to mention something important?

The rebellion was not merely against Greek culture. Antiochus banned the practice of Judaism.

It was a fight for survival.

This is the issue that seems to be forgotten in many critiques of Israel as well.

Critics say that Israel is so powerful that there is no existential threat.

And yet when Israel doesn't do that well in its wars against Hamas or Hezbollah its enemies are quick to point out that it isn't that secure.

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