Chanukah’s difficult questions

12.11.09

Interesting op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times about the real story of Chanukah and the difficult questions that it raises:

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices. 

(Hat tip: Lesley).

It is certainly true that there are a number of ways to interpret the story of Chanukah. It can be read as a tale of the triumph of religious extremism over secularism. It can be read as an anti-assimilationist tale. It can be viewed as an anti-imperialist struggle, or as a divisive civil war.

All of this tends to get lost in the shuffle among most people who simply view Chanukah as the “festival of lights”, a generic, commercialized Jewish version of the equally-commercialized Christmas, a simple excuse for retailers to make money. A view would have likely incensed the anti-assimilationist Maccabees to no end.

Sure, at its core, Chanukah is just another one of those “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” holidays that fill the Jewish calendar. And there’s nothing wrong with a little celebration. But it’s important to know what, and why, we’re celebrating.

Happy Chanukah, all!

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