Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Tonight is the first night of Chanukah (or Hannukah, or any number of other spelling variants). I had been planning to write something on this strange holiday, but Christopher Hitchens beat me to it. His essay is, as usual, bracing, witty, and nasty.

And correct, on many points. In fact, in his portrayal of the fundamentalist savagery built into the holiday's DNA, he leaves out a few fun facts. For example, the first casualty in the Hasmonean guerrilla war against the Seleucid empire was not a Persian occupier, but an Israeli collaborator. Very Jacobin. Very Bolshevik. Very...well, go ahead and slide in the name of any radical, true-believing mass movement you like. They're all the same.

What's interesting and instructive, though--what Hitchens chooses not to look at--is the holiday's development and mutation over the years. Yes, it began as the celebration of the "purifying" of Israel and the purging of its occupiers--a turning away from assimilation and cosmopolitanism, and a turning-inward to The Old Ways. It probably saved the religion from dissolving into the larger Helenistic world. If you're a Jew, that has to be a good thing, and worth celebrating. However, if you're looking for a modern counterpart to the Maccabees, it would have to be the Taliban, or perhaps the idiots in Sudan who wanted that English elementary school teacher to be slaughtered for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. They're also trying to save their religion from dissolving into a very shrinking and cosmopolitan, America-centered world.

But here's what's interesting. That's not where Chanukah--or Judaism--stayed. Hitchens is correct that the squabbling among the Hasmoneans led to the intervention of Rome (at their request!) and the eventual occupation of the country. Which led to the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews. Which led to two thousand years of exile. But that did not lead to the vanishing of Judaism.

What happened to this particular holiday during that long period of exile? It had to go underground. You couldn't really celebrate the overthrow of occupiers and the restoration of state religion when living in someone else's country--not even a full citizen of that country, with anything like rights. So it became a quieter holiday, a celebration of light in the dark time of the year and a time of re-dedication. And, of course, for the children, it became All About The Miracle.

Through most of that time, Jews did live as a People Apart--partly by edict and partly, let's face it, by choice. Some Jews still live that way. But over time, in Europe and definitely in America, Jews were granted citizenship, and became part of the larger culture. In the last century, Chanukaah became all about giving Jewish kids something to do during Christmas, so they didn't have to feel bad about not getting presents. In earlier times and other places, that wasn't an issue, because Jewish kids rarely had non-Jewish friends. But they do now.

You could interpret this history negatively, as the decay and degradation of religion, and the swapping of commercialism for spirituality, and all that--just as many Christians feel about Christmas. But I choose not to look at it that way. Because Jewish kids actually have non-Jewish friends--and it's barely worthy of comment. Here were are, in 21st century America, and we can celebrate Chanukah without anyone worrying about Those Uppity Jews. And Christians can celebrate Christmas without making non-Christians feel oppressed (for the most part). There is an upside to Christmas becoming more about generic peace and family togetherness (yes, and Santy Claus) than only and exclusively about the birth of Christ. In a multi-cultural, multi-everything society, the only way for us all to live together in peace is for us to blur some of those sharp edges...at least in public.

We get all upset about what's going on in Islam these days, but few of us are willing to talk about the fact that we've all been there. Every religion has passed through this absolutist, fundamentalist, death-to-the-infidels stage. Every one of them. And some of them have had a Reformation, or an Enlightenment, and some of them have not.

What worries me is that we have voices now in our own country bemoaning and regretting those reforms and enlightenments that Judaism and Christianity have been through--the very things that have allowed us to live together, work together, learn from and enjoy each other, and build a great country together. Let's banish Santa and make Christmas only and exlcusively about Jesus the son of God, accessible only to believers. Not just in private, but everywhere and in everyone's face. Let's lock ourselves away from everyone else, learn only Yiddish, and dress as though we're in 18th century Poland. Forget us and them; It's just us.

Saint John Chysostom said, a couple thousand years ago, that if the Jewish rites and rituals were true, then all of Christianity had to be a lie. Which led to belief among Christians that the reverse also had to be true--if Christianity was true, then Judaism had to be a lie. It's us or them. Choose or die. And an absolutist, fundamentalist belief probably doesn't allow for any more wiggle room than that. Is that really where we want to go?

It seems to me that a multicultural society--and any kind of democracy--requires a good deal of wiggle room. We have to find ways to get along. Because it simply can't be us or them, or us versus them. There's only us--a great big us. E pluribus unum.
And amazingly enough, we've done it. We've made compromises, sure--every one of us. We've had to blur some distinctions in public that are still there, under the surface. We've made the choice not to push those distinctions to the breaking point. Any maybe it does make our various religions and belief systems less than pure. But it works.

It would be a shame if we didn't see that it works, and threw it all away.


Anonymous said...

You are correct that those who led the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid empire probably fit the definition of fundamentalist. However, you, like Hitchens, omit the vital fact that the Greeks were no less fundamentalist. Contrasting to the spirit of tolerance practiced by Alexander when Judea became part of his empire, Seleucid king Antiochus made the practice of Judaism a capital crime and forcibly converted the Jewish Temple into an alter of Zeus. You make an absolutely true assertion that Judaism has had bouts with fundamentalism over the course of its evolution and I commend you for pointing out that every religion has been there at some point but risen above it (for the most part). Still, let's not forget that the Greeks were there too.

Agathon said...

Absolutely true, Sam, and thanks for poiting that out.