Chanukah: the Big, Noble Lie

Tonight, Jews commence an 8-day commemoration of the successful revolt of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucid Empire–in conventional parlance, of the Maccabees against the Syrian-Greeks. This successful rebellion, which occurred in 166-165 BCE, represented the last time the Jews had their own state until 1948.

Mark and Mike have suggested that this holiday is actually quite minor, and has been recently upgraded so Jews (and especially Jewish children) don’t feel left out at Christmas. I think that that’s right. But Chanukah actually has some enormously powerful lessons for the modern political context.

The central story of Chanukah–the oil lasting eight days, yadda yadda yadda–is not only a lie, but an obvious one: it is nowhere mentioned in either of the two Books of Maccabees, which provide the central textual source for the Chanukah story. It’s just made up. And by the way–where are those Books of Maccabees, anyway? Roman Catholics have included them in their Bible, and some Protestants usually append the Apocrypha (where they are found) to the back of their Bible, but Jews leave it out. It’s almost as if we’re embarrassed by it.

There’s a reason for that. After Pompey destroyed the Hasmonean kingdom in 63 BCE, the Jews lost their state, but overall, Roman rule wasn’t so bad. Jews got freedom of religion, and for those of you who saw The Life of Brian, you know that the Romans brought lots of other good things, too. But extremist Jewish nationalists, known accurately as The Zealots, nevertheless started a revolt in 67 CE, refused to compromise, killed more moderate Jewish factions–and thereabout brought about the destruction of the Temple.

Seventy years later, in 132 CE, the Bar Kochba revolt tried the same thing, again refused to compromise, and brought about an even worse result–a complete ban of Jews to live in large areas of Palestine, and in fact a renaming of the region from Judaea to Palestine.

And what was the great inspiration for these extremist, suicidal revolts? The Maccabees. Extremist groups used them to justify their extremism: they argued that the Jews should want no less than what Judah Maccabee demanded.

Although I cannot say for sure (and welcome readers’ corrections and light-shedding), I suspect that this dismal history is what led the Rabbis to concoct this crazy, almost purposefully silly story about a holiday originating in a miracle of the oil. The whole point is was to de-nationalize Jewish existence; and thereby prevent the recurrence of suicidal, hypernationalist extremism. it wasn’t about the Maccabees, really: it was about the oil. Yeah, that’s it; that’s the ticket!

Chanukah is thus a deconstructionist’s dream: its very history contradicts itself and makes the holiday contain opposite meanings. On the one hand, it is a story of successful Jewish nationalism and rebellion; on the other, it is a story of de-nationalizing the people.

And this gives it important meaning in the modern world. Chanukah should hardly be read as an anti-Zionist morality tale. Instead, we should see it as an opportunity to embrace the holiday in all of its contradictory meanings: as a celebration of Jewish nationalism, and as a caution against going too far in nationalistic orgy (which of course includes denying the Palestinians their own right to a state). Chanukah makes us proud of our history, and (in the case of the Zealots), somewhat ashamed of it simultaneously. We search for the truth of our experience, yet recognize the value in creating lies about that experience.

Thus, in its depth, its complexity, its ever-changing meanings, and its stern challenge to us to hold several competing ideas simultaneously, Chanukah is truly a holiday worth celebrating.

Happy Chanukah to all.

—Jonathan Zasloff

UPDATE: A reader argues that the story of the oil does in fact have a textual source. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b, cites the miracle of the oil as the reason for the holiday. To my mind, this just proves my point. The Talmud was put together somewhere around 600 CE, nearly 800 years after the fact. The story of the oil is a Rabbinic creation–which to my mind is a good thing, because it demonstrates ongoing Jewish theological creativity and innovation.

More interesting material from an excellent Wikipedia article, here.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.