Taking the Fun out of Fundamentalism

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon on the biggest rebranding excercise in religious history

The historical origins of Chanukah are dark, violent and a little too redolent of modern religious conflicts to make most contemporary readers feel comfortable. So what are we to make of the story behind the miracle of the one flask of oil?

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon investigates.

The winsome nature of modern Chanukah celebrations hides a spiritual truth about the Jewish approach to insurgent violence. The Maccabees’ grim and bloody triumph has been glossed over with a diversionary tactic in one of the most extraordinary rebranding exercises in religious history. Leave to one side the Maccabees, spun the Rabbis. They were a ruthless bunch of fundamentalists, who butchered their assimilationist fellow Jews with the same zeal as they fought their oppressors. They went on to have a poor and violent record as Governors of the Jewish state. Let’s celebrate the oil, say the Rabbis, not the fighting; sing of praise to God who bent the laws of physics, play down the role of the warriors. As a result of this Rabbinic whitewash we are left with an emasculated festival, no longer threatening to trumpet the violent and morally provocative insurgencies of ancient times.

Religious truth forms over time. Looking for balanced ethical and spiritual reflection in a time of war is unrealistic. What picture has emerged in the millennia following the Maccabean insurgency? Firstly, neither of the Maccabean books made it into the Hebrew Bible. They are perhaps a little late (around 100 BCE) but it is also reasonable to suspect that their military tone and nature may have assured their exclusion. Secondly, the religious festival Chanukah (‘rededication’), is not named after the Maccabees but after an act of religious service, another little snub to the notion that violence can be religiously celebrated. And what violence:

Mattathias had only just finished exhorting the people to stand firm in the face of the bribes and threats of Antiochus when an Israelite arrived ready to offer a sacrifice on the idolatrous altar. Mattathias ‘was filled with zeal and ran up and slaughtered’ the miscreant, at the same time he killed the king’s officer and tore down the altar. ‘Let everybody who is zealous for the Law and stands by the covenant come out after me,’ he called. And then, the first book of Maccabees relates, he and his sons fled to the mountains. In contemporary terms the Macabees are insurgents. They hide in mountain caves and launch themselves at mightier armies with little, other than faith, to safeguard their efforts. ‘How can we fight, few as we are, against such a strong host?’ one cavilling Israelite asks. Judas replies:

‘It is easy for many to be inclosed in the hands of the few, and there is no difference in the sight of heaven between saving through many or through few, for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the force, but strength comes from heaven. They come against us to destroy us and our wives and our children and to plunder us, but we are fighting for our lives and our laws. God himself will crush them before us and you must not be afraid of them.’ (I Maccabees 1)

The language is alarmingly close to  modern faith-driven insurgent rhetoric. Other parallels also leap off the page. The insurgency places a steep financial cost on the King, who is forced to re-finance to pay for the troop deployments. The King brings, into war, weapons at the very cutting edge of contemporary technologies – in Antiochus’ case fearsome elephants. There is even a ‘suicide bomber’: Eleazar Avaran, who seeing that ‘one of the elephants was armed with royal armour’, ran boldly up to it in the midst of the phalanx, ‘slaying to the right and left’ and ‘slipped under the elephant and stabbed it underneath and killed it, and it fell to the earth upon him and he died there.’ (I Maccabees 6)

Disquieting parallels emerge with contemporary allied forces. Two thousand years ago the King’s soldiers forced captives to eat ‘unlawful swine meat’ before unspeakable physical depredations are visited on them (2 Maccabees 7). Reading this ugly chapter in the light of the appalling treatment meted out at the American-run Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detention facilities makes looking at comparisons between ancient and modern insurgents very tempting.

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We live in judgemental times. We judge anything from ten-year-old children’s exam results to celebrity body-mass. Goodness knows what would happen if we were to turn our hyper-judgemental faculties on Judah and his cohorts. Before rushing  in, however, we should acknowledge that judging ancient conflicts from the comfort of twenty-first century armchairs is a deeply precarious exercise. Too much history has been lost, too many of the norms by which we might understand Maccabean responses are unknown. To be clear: I make no claim as to the relationship between treatment of Jews at the hands of Antiochus and Muslims at the hands of the various forces who now find themselves facing the Taliban, Al Qaida and their ilk. But, on the other hand, we can’t let the important differences between ancient and contemporary insurgency narratives absolve us entirely of the discomfort we should feel reading stories that underlie a festival so beloved in contemporary Jewish identity. So what are we left with other than a cute story about a flask of oil?

Here is the story of Chanukah as it appears in the Talmud, a document redacted some 600 years after the event:

‘When the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils there and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against them and defeated them, they searched and found only one flask of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but it contained enough oil for one day’s lighting only. But there was a miracle and they lit the candelabra with it for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a festival.’ (Shabbat 21b )

Remarkably there is nothing like this tale in any more contemporary record of the festival. Even more remarkably the entire feel of the record in the Talmud is radically different to the tone evoked in the contemporary records. The Talmud gives the impression of an immediate re-lighting of the candelabra, just as the troops re-enter the Temple compound. I’m reminded of stories of then Israeli Army Chaplain Shlomo Goren arriving at the Kotel in 1967 and instantly sounding the shofar. But here is the story of what happened on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev — the first day of Chanukah — in the contemporary record:

‘Then said Judas and his brothers, “Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. Judas chose blameless priests devoted to the law, they cleansed the sanctuary, removed the defiled stones, tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them. They built a new altar, rebuilt the sanctuary, the interior, consecrated the courts, made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the incense altar and the table into the temple … [the schedule of repairs goes on]… Thus they finished all the work and early in the morning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev they rose and offered sacrifice on the new altar and Judas and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days.’ (1 Maccabees 4)

Dedication — Chanukah — is not instantaneous. The war is long past and the 25th Kislev is the culmination of, surely, months of building and decorating all of which would have necessitated sophisticated supply chains. Forget the magic of eight days of flickering fire, the really odd thing about this story is that we are required to believe that those in charge of the rebuild forgot to order in oil.

The shift in emphasis is not an uncommon Rabbinic trope. There are many violent moments in ancient religious literature. But the Rabbis suck the oxygen away from these tales, depriving the military hero of the opportunity to crow about his victory. Violent passion is transmuted into a passion for Torah and the supremacy of the Divine. The Rabbis even turned soldiers of the tradition into scholars. The Book of Samuel commends David, the slayer of Goliath, as a brave fighter and man of war. The Talmud explains this means he knew how to argue his point in ‘the war of Torah’ (BT Sanhedrin 93b).

The almost childish nature of contemporary Chanukah celebrations masks a most adult coup de theologie and maybe celebrating this story of the oil allows us to celebrate, still, a festival whose contemporary resonance should otherwise have us shifting uneasily amongst the detritus of doughnuts and dreidels.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue.

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