Of the many strange things George W. Bush has said while president, here is one of the strangest: “I couldn’t imagine someone like Osama Bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah.”
Shrub must have figured this sound bite was a slam-dunk. He was wrong. Osama Bin Laden may be the person on the planet most attuned to the joys of Hanukkah. As it turns out, the traditional Hanukkah spiel about the oil-that-was-only-supposed-to-last-for-one-day-but-lo-and-behold-it-lasted-for-eight-wowza is mostly Talmudic PR. Contrary to popular myth, the holiday arose from the exact struggle Bin Laden is waging today: an armed rebellion against an imperial power, driven by religious fanaticism and suicidal self-assertion.
The genesis of Hanukkah resides in the Books of Maccabee. You can be forgiven if you have not read these books–they never made it in to the Biblical canon.* I only read them, in fact, because my wife is converting to Judaism and I wanted to be able to provide her a full accounting of the festival. Weirdly, I happened to have the New American Bible at home, a Catholic version of scripture that includes both books.
1 Maccabees opens with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The Hannukah story begins around 175 BC, when Antiochus, leader of the occupying Seleucid dynasty,issues a decree forcing the Jews to profane their Covenant: “Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death, in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks.” The high priest Mattathias kills a Seleucid official, then retreats to the desert to launch a revolt, which under the direction of his sons Judah, Jonathan, and Simon becomes a guerilla war. There’s another word for all this, of course: insurgency.
Judah Maccabee leads the Jews to numerous improbable victories on his way to reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem, “destroying the impious” (here defined as any Jews less pious than themselves) along the way. Up north, Judah squares off against Antiochus IV’s son, the unfortunately named Eupator, whose army includes armored elephants, the Old Testament equivalent of tanks.
The account of a Maccabee soldier named Eleazer made me queasy:
Eleazar, called Avaran, saw one of the beasts bigger than any of the others and covered with royal armor, and he thought the king must be on it. So he gave up his life to save his people and win an everlasting name for himself. He dashed up to it in the middle of the phalanx, killing men right and left, so that they fell back from him on both sides. He ran right under the elephant and stabbed it in the belly, killing it. The beast fell to the ground on top of him and he died there. (6:43)
Eleazer sounds to me like a Biblical version of the suicide bombers who launch themselves at military convoys in Iraq. He isn’t trying to kill and maim innocent bystanders, so it’s not an exact comparison, but his mindset is essentially the same: He relishes the chance to give his life in exchange for the glory of the cause, and his own name.
I got the same queasy feeling when I read about Judah decapitating the vanquished general Nicanor and putting his head on display in Jerusalem. This might have been how you asserted your might 2000 years ago. But isn’t the gesture really just an old school version of the decapitation videos Al Qaeda uses today to horrify its Western foes?
Judah himself eventually dies, but his brothers Jonathan and Simon carry on the insurgency. Their methods could hardly seem more familiar:
They watched and suddenly saw a noisy crowd with baggage; the bridegroom and his friends and kinsmen had come out to meet the bride’s party with tambourines and musicians and much equipment. The Jews rose up against them from their ambush and killed them. Many fell wounded and after the survivors fled toward the mountain, all their spoils were taken. Thus the wedding was turned into mourning, and the sound of music into lamentation.
Again, from where I’m sitting this sounds a lot like, well, terrorism. It calls to mind the horrifying images of the 2005 attack at a Jordanian hotel, when members of al Qaida turned a wedding party into a bloodbath.
Jonathan then cuts a deal to send 3000 of his soldiers — let’s not call them foreign-born terrorists – to help the despot Demetrius put down a rebellion by his troops in Antioch. The Jewish mercenaries kill 100,000 people.
Obviously the Maccabees were in a tight spot, surrounded by hostile enemies and forced to defend themselves in mortal combat. What’s striking is the righteous lust with which they carry out this defense. Because they believe in the one true God, they have no problem with killing innocent civilians, killing other Jews, and killing themselves.
Radical Islam, meet radical Judaism.
I hoped the second book would be a softer ride, one that might tease out the less martial aspects of Hanukkah. Wrong.
2 Maccabees recounts the victories of Judah, only this time the Almighty plays a much more significant role in the combat. Indeed, if the message of the first book was that Jews kick serious ass when inspired by God, the message of the second is that the Jews kick ass because God actively intervenes on their behalf
In one particularly hallucinogenic episode, God helps his people by conjuring a “manifestation” straight from the pages of the Book of Revelation: he takes the form of a “richly caparisoned horse, mounted by a dreadful rider” who attacks one of Judah’s antagonists. Elsewhere, Judah reminds his troops that the Almighty will vouchsafe their victory. The rebels cut down “at least 35,000” of the enemy and “rejoice greatly over this manifestation of God’s power.”
The second book also places a disturbing emphasis on martyrdom. The most famous example is the story of a Jewish mother and her seven sons who refuse Antiochus’s order that they eat pork. The story illustrates the cruelty of the Seleucid soldiers, but its real emphasis is on dying for a cause:
At that, the king gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated … He commanded his executioners to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on. When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread form the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die bravely…
Which they do.
I am going to resist using this story to suggest that torture doesn’t really work, because I think it speaks to a broader pathology—the mindset that exalts a noble death above all other human courses.
One other passage in 2 Maccabees is nothing short of eerie. It’s the retelling of a story about Nehemiah, the leader who had helped rebuild the Temple wall after the Babylonian Exile. During the exile, the priests took some of the sacred fire of the Temple altar and hid it in the hollow below a dry cistern. Hoping to rekindle the altar flame, Nehemiah sends the priests to retrieve the hidden fire, but they come back with a thick liquid instead. “And when the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and what was laid upon it.” (7:21) A great fire blazes up and everyone marvels. The King of Persia declares a miracle. The material, whatever it is, comes to be called naphtha – which, translated from Greek, means “petroleum.”
I wish I were making this stuff up. But it’s really and truly in the book. Twenty two hundred years ago, with insurgents and imperialists doing battle in the Middle East, people were agog over the miracle of petroleum.
In recent years, Jews have made an understandable decision to steer people away from the violence in Hanukkah’s exegetical basement. As an assimilated and not-very-observant Jew, I grew up hearing almost exclusively about the miracle of the oil.
The only thing I knew about the Maccabees was that they were heroic defenders of the faith who had something to do with the Jewish Olympics. The modern holiday has been recast as a cheery Festival of Lights, a counterpart to the bright tinsel of Christmas. It’s the same impulse that leads Christians to repackage Easter as a vista of bunnies and candy eggs, rather than the commemoration of a brutal public murder.
But this kind of soft-pedaling distorts our history and distracts us from the true meaning of our holidays. Hanukkah really is about a violent insurgency. It’s about the lengths to which the oppressed will go to defend their beliefs. But it’s also about a strain of unchecked aggression that infects those who are convinced that God is on their side. It’s precisely the sort of holiday story, in other words, that might force us to confront the moral crises of our present historical circumstance – before we go the way of the Maccabees, or their imperial enemies.
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In Slate, Christopher Hitchens agrees that Hanukkah is predicated on some less-than-enlightened principles. Being Christopher Hitchens, he also calls Judaism "an ancient and cruel faith" and suggests that Hanukkah violates the first amendment; hilariously, Slate illustrated this rant with a picture of an adorable Jewish child lighting the menorah.
In the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, Danya Ruttenberg takes a more positive approach, looking for the good in a holiday that celebrates Jew-on-Jew civil war.
Correction, December 14: The original piece mistakenly stated that the Books of Maccabee were removed from the Biblical canon in the third century. (Return to the corrected sentence.)