Celebrating the Ayatollah Mattathias

Chanukkah celebrates the victory of the bad guys.

It is (you should pardon the expression) against my religion to agree with Christopher Hitchens about anything. He almost always manages to be not only wrong, but obnoxiously wrong. It’s a hard call whether I disliked more the pre-9/11 anti-American Hitchens or the post-9/11 Hitchens Matamoros, Hammer of the Muslims. And he exemplifies the sort of silly Voltaire-and-Tom-Paine religion-bashing that helps maintain anti-intellectualism among the believing majority.

However, when the man’s right, he’s right. Chanukkah, in its original meaning as expressed in 1 and 2 Maccabees, is about the triumph of the second-century (B.C.E.) Jewish analogues of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his ignorant, theocratic goons.

Here’s the actual story, as best it can be pieced together from contemporary documents:

The people of sophisticated, Hellenized Jerusalem (including the Kohane Gadol Menelaus) were delighted that the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV wanted to give their city the status of a self-governing polis, and didn’t mind at all that a statue of Zeus was erected in the Temple. After all, the government of a polis required the swearing of municipal oaths. Where else were they to be sworn but in the largest temple in the city, and in front of what statue other than that of Zeus Highest and Best? The notion that the “Greeks” (in fact, the Greek-speaking rulers of the Seleucid Empire, centered on Syria) wanted to force the Jews to worship idols is just plain silly.

First, they didn’t worship idols themselves; no one thought that the statue of Zeus was actually Zeus, or even that Zeus somehow dwelt in the statue. The ordinary folk thought that the statue was an image of the actual god who lived on Olympus and ruled the thunderbolt; the philosophers thought that “Zeus” was a concept or cluster of concepts centered on the ideas of justice and ruling rather than a large, immortal man with a white beard and an excessive sex drive.

And second, they certainly didn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone else’s religion; probably if they’d thought about it they would have thought that “Yahweh” was the Israelite name for Zeus, but in any case they didn’t mind at all if barbarians observed their barbarian rites. They thought that piety was a virtue, but having poetry and myth rather than theology they weren’t very picky about what other people chose to be pious about. If the Jews didn’t understand that all that being fruitful and multipying was the service of Aphrodite, and that Judah Maccabee was among the greatest of the servants of Ares and Athena, that was the Jews’ problem.

No, what spurred the Maccabee revolt was not religious persecution but the fact that so many Jews, and especially the prosperous residents of Jerusalem, were voluntarily adopting Hellenistic ways: learning Greek, sending their boys to the gymnasium, and abstaining from ritual genital mutilation. That’s why the revolt started in the back country and had to beseige and sack Jerusalem to be triumphant.

On one point Hitchens is wrong: the supposed Chanukkah miracle, in which one day’s worth of consecrated olive oil lasted eight days to allow the rededication of the Temple, was no part of the original Maccabee story, but instead represents a much later addition.

How did that story arise? Here’s a theory and no more than a theory: the ceremony of lighting one candle the first day, two the second day, and so on up to eight, was part of the pre-Chanukkah winter solstice celebration onto which Chanukkah was grafted. “Light increasing” is the obvious theme of any Winter Solstice festival, which after all celebrates the fact that the Sun is coming back. But given the ritual and the holiday, an explanation was needed to fit the ritual into the holiday, and the miracle of the long-burning oil did the trick nicely.

Now, knowing all that (and having no children), I’m just as happy to treat Chanukkah as the minor festival it is in traditional Judaism. If I miss a Passover seder, I feel both guilty and deprived: guilty for not celebrating the liberation from slavery, and deprived of a ritual I cherish, about the way I feel if I don’t hear the Declaration of Independence read on the Fourth of July. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to light a menorah, which celebrates the triumph of ignorance and bigotry over enlightenment and tolerance.

By the same token, though, I don’t scruple to light a menorah (or, to be precise, a Chanukkiah) if I’m in company, nor do I insist on telling those too young to understand why I think Mattathias was a bigoted old fool. Since I find in myself no tendency to believe tranditionally comfortable folk-tales, I don’t feel as threatened by them as Hitchens seems to be, and am perfectly happy to appreciate the rituals that go with them.

I have a simple piece of advice to Hitchens, and his fellow fundamentalist nonbelievers:


When theocracy threatens, I’ll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you to oppose it. But, unlike you and the Taliban and Mattathias, I don’t regard it as a righteous act to smash other people’s idols.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com