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.

Merry Christmas

Boy, do I feel Target’s pain. They exile specific reference to Christmas in their ads and store decorations in order not to offend people who “don’t celebrate it” (except perhaps as a secular exercise in demonstrating love through stuff), and then they get slammed for offending Christians, at least the Christians whose principal exercise of faith would appear to be lying in wait to make people feel guilty for something. In all of this, the guiding principle seems to be to “not offend”, but the principle has evolved quite far from its origins in Golden Rule manners to mean something like “don’t say or do anything that the most sensitive person with the largest chip on his shoulder could interpret, on his most truculent day, into something offensive”.

The Christmas wars alone could keep an army of Jonathan Swifts busy for years; I don’t know where to begin counting ironies, though Reuters has a nice roundup of current idiocy here that mentions this pointed jape. Christmas displaced Easter as the principal Christian holiday quite some time ago, with annual tut-tutting from here and there about the commercialization of the secondary Christian mystery, but no important revolt in Christian circles; some big churches are to close on Christmas Sunday this year expecting too few worshipers to bother with. No-one has figured out how to make real money from Peeps and hard-boiled eggs, I guess, so Easter is toast.

A minor Jewish holiday having no theological relationship to Christmas was inflated to completely inappropriate parallel status, first by school administrators trying to be fair, then by many Jews. (If Christians had maintained the historic importance of Easter in community activity, Passover would have been embraced in the same ridiculous way; in fact the Italian for Passover, Pasqua Ebraica, means Jewish Easter, truly an oxymoron for the ages.) A new holiday was invented by and for blacks uncomfortable with the asserted inclusive aims of Christianity (or with the spotty record of white Christians in walking their talk with regard to race); it seems not to have held up in recent years. The Moslems, whose lunar calendar is not solar-adjusted, are unable to play this game as their holidays cycle around the solar year. If they would stand still, I’m sure something would be inflated, not necessarily by them, into a sort of “Islamic Christmas”.

The attempt by the Christian right to put a lien on anything red and green is as outrageous as the political right’s appropriation of the flag, and I hope they wake up and start being extra-Christian around the holidays, instead of extra-self-righteous and extra-nail-everyone-they-can-catch for offending them or not displaying enough pietism. (Of course my idea of being extra-Christian is heavy on turning the other cheek, hating the sin and loving the sinner, hoping for a lot of redemption, seeing God’s goodness in everyone wherever possible, helping the meek to inherit what they’re too shy to ask for, and like that.)

The facts of the situation are that we have at least three distinct community rituals called Christmas. One is the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, and I hope all my friends certain of Christ’s divinity have a merry one, and when I meet them this time of year I try to remember to say so. The second is a US legal holiday, and a period around it, in which we ambiguously (and rightly so) note that lots of Americans have thought this birth is a very big deal, and that lots more think it’s in any case a really nice idea to gather in families, exchange gifts, have a decorated tree, and so on.

This holiday has accreted, with and without specific religious reference, an enormous amount of delightful social capital including Nutcracker, Messiah, and Christmas Carol performances, carols, parties, fundraising for good causes, temporary home decorating projects, yummy irresponsible eating and cooking with special dishes from different places, being out and about shopping and looking and meeting people and working at the homeless shelter, and on and on. I hope all my friends, and everyone else, have a really merry one of these too, and when I go around saying Merry Christmas this is what I mean. (I am a New Year’s grinch, believing that (American) Labor Day marks our de facto new year, and finding Dec. 31 celebrations usually forced and overfueled with ethanol).

Finally, Christmas denotes an orgy of buying chattels beyond any possible benefit, insane advertising and price-cutting, insecurity about whether one has chosen exactly the right gifts for enough people, some distasteful piggishness among the young (well satirized in Calvin and Hobbes), and an outbreak of completely shameless extortion (my newspaper deliverer left me an envelope addressed to him with a card inside; God help you if you live in a New York apartment building). If this third version of “Christmas” goes away, or returns to a focus on signalling love rather than a potlatchesque one-upping and showing-off, it will be fine by me, as there is no way this third Christmas can ever be merry. All those trees that die for Sunday newspaper inserts would be better as Christmas trees or 2x4s.

I am not a Christian, so if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas in this environment, I have alternative ways to take it. One is to enjoy the experience of being wished well by another, impute good will to the source, and enjoy the second Christmas incrementally more.

Another is to take offense, and here the options are rich and varied:

“How dare you address me in this matter without being fully informed of my confession! You are thoughtless and careless to bet the odds on (i) the Christian preponderance in the US population (about 3 in 4) and/or (ii) my name, rather than making inquiry of me or my friends before you say something nice to me. You should be ashamed.”

“Ah, ‘Merry Christmas’, you say. I bet you mean that in the imperative mood, ordering me under cover of a greeting to convert to your religion. You’re a child of the cossacks and the inquisition, and so are the stores with their holly and ribbons, just carrying on centuries of oppression and abuse. You should be ashamed.”

“Merry Christmas? You said that out loud, here in a government institution [I teach in a state university]? Do you realize you’re creating an establishment of religion? You should be ashamed.”

Once I get in this track, my friend can’t win. “‘Happy Holidays’? You sound like a Wal-Mart sign. I only celebrate one of them, and I’m offended that you blur your greeting over the one[s] I don’t.”

I could easily produce a similar paragraph on alternative ways to take a merchant’s, or a friend’s, attempt to be nice while not giving offense by saying “Have a nice holiday.”

The point is that we have as strong a duty to take things as though people mean well, even if we could nail them for making a mistake, as we do to be gracious and thoughtful on the sending side. Anyway, I cannot for the life of me understand how a reasonable person of any faith can take offense at someone’s well-meaning attempt to spread cheer, or turn it into a trap. (I don’t even mind being proselytized, within reason; it’s a compliment that someone wants to save my soul and often leads to an interesting theological argument.)

Jews are about one American in fifty, Moslems another one (depending on how you count). The idea that the popular culture of December in the US should ignore or hide its religious sources, or that it should not be overwhelmingly Christian-flavored, seems to me to get it completely wrong. Nobody’s rights are violated by demographic facts. Italian schools have a crucifix in each classroom; that’s a bad idea for us, and a cross would be as well. But singing Christmas carols in school in season is no more establishing religion than letting the chorus sing Bach is preaching Lutheranism. Life isn’t better when we don’t get to look at other cultures, its better when we do; religion matters, so we ought to be about learning more, not less, in school and out, about what other people believe and don’t.

Merry Christmas, readers. I hope you overdose shamelessly on stollen and panettone and latkes. And a Happy New Year, retroactive three or four months or both, as you prefer.


The War on Chanukah

In the midst of the war in Iraq, the Katrina catastrophe, the staggering deficit, the climate change talks, the torture scandal, the Plamegate scandal, the Abramoff scandal, the Delaygate scandal, and the (fill in blank) scandal, the House of Representatives has decided that its first priority is to pass a resolution defending the symbols of Christmas.

It’s about time to call the Republican Party’s staged hissy-fit over Christmas for what it is: thinly-disguised anti-Semitism. Such a thesis is at least far more plausible than the original assertion that there is a War on Christmas.

Is that going overboard? Well, several Representatives asked the House leadership to amend the resolution to protect the symbols of Chanukah as well, and it refused. That means that the leadership explicitly decided to protect Christmas and not Chanukah. What else could that be but anti-semitism?

So let’s ask Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hastert: why do you hate Chanukah so much? Do you want to rename December “judenrein” (jew-cleansed)?

Maybe someone should ask the President, too: do you support the House’s call for a jew-free December?

That is, if he ever takes questions again…..

—Jonathan Zasloff

Terminological inexactitude

The Rev. Robert Johansen’s well-written brief for the feed-Terri forces has been rocketing around the Right Blogosphere and right-wing talk radio.

Alas, a Blog demonstrates that Johansen appears to … ummmm … depart from the facts … at several points.

Would it be rude of me, on this Easter Sunday, to remind Fr. Johansen and his allies of Lev. 19:11 and John 8:32?

Perhaps it would. Never mind, then.

Update: Broken link fixed, thanks to no fewer than seven (!) alert readers. One of them says “We have to get you a proofreader.” Ummm … I think we just did.

But I’ll try harder in the future. Honest.