Time has come to reclaim Hanukkah, Christopher Hitchens style
Christopher Hitchens was not the only commentator in recent times to question the idealistic narrative of the Maccabees.
When he was 38, the age I am now, the ultimate journalist and brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens, who died last week, discovered almost by coincidence that he was Jewish. I suppose all of us wonder how we would respond to such a revelation; would it shake us to our core and lead us to question everything we believed of ourselves, re-examine the makeup of our entire identity?
Hitchens, as he tells it, was delighted. A devoted atheist, even antitheist, he did not feel the need to jettison a previous set of religious beliefs, he wrote that he was "pleased to find that I was pleased." The knowledge that he also came from this stubborn breed of individual contrarians thrilled him, as many of his friends and heroes were also of Hebraic extraction, but it didn't change his basic outlook. His Jewish role models were avowed rebels, secularists and independent thinkers, in the tradition of Baruch Spinoza.
His newly-found roots did not prevent him from identifying with the Palestinian national cause and bitterly criticizing Zionism in its ascendant right-wing chauvinist form and excoriating rabbinical Judaism with equal fervor to that with which he abominated every other flavor of theology. One of his constant objects of scorn was "the vapid and annoying holiday known as 'Hanukkah,'" which according to Hitchens commemorates "an absolute tragic day in human history."
In his best-selling God is not Great, Hitchens rips into Hanukkah and all it stands for. Ironically, it offended him on a proprietary level as a Jew, that while Christianity was basically a plagiarism of ancient Judaism (and Islam in turn "borrowed" from both the older creeds ), Hanukkah was set in the calendar "in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with 'Christmas,'" but he had a much more visceral objection to the festival of lights.
According to Hitchens, the Maccabees were a sect of murderous religious fanatics, whose victims had been the open-minded Jews attracted to the modern Hellenistic culture and Greek philosophy. The Maccabean victory meant that the historical opportunity whereby "the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism" and the ascendancy of the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea, allied with the Roman empire, "was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy ) and thus ineluctably to lead to the birth of Islam." Judah the Maccabee certainly has a lot to answer for.
Hitchens was not the first writer to turn the story of Hanukkah on its head and recast the Maccabees as bloodthirsty religious fundamentalists and their Hellenist rivals as persecuted adherents of enlightenment, but he was probably the most eloquent and persuasive. Much of the British and American media has been going through a Hitchens-orgy over the last few days, hundreds of websites celebrating his memory with "the best of" his writing and YouTube clips of choice appearances in televised debates and interviews.
As an avid Hitchens-reader over the years, I spent long luxurious hours online soaking it all up, rediscovering and occasionally finding new gems of prose. But as the first candle was lit on Tuesday evening, I felt the same unease I experienced when I first read God is not Great as it came out four years ago - is there something shameful about Hanukkah?
The poet-philosopher Eliaz Cohen admitted to me that he has also felt uncomfortable in the past with the Maccabean heritage. "I don't want to see them as a group of fanatics coercing other people to act against their will," he says, "but that isn't the perspective we should have of them. It was a period in which a great empire was trying to impose its will and its culture on a Jewish minority, and I can identify with that minority's struggle to preserve its identity against the odds."
The Maimonidean scholar Micah Goodman told me that "Hitchens' narrative of Hanukkah is an historical one, based on texts like the books of Maccabees which may not be entirely accurate. But anyway Jews do not base their festivals on history but on memory. It isn't about who we were, it's about how we remember ourselves. The sages of the Mishna and Talmud were not big fans of the Hasmoneans, who were a family of priests who appointed themselves as kings. The sages were very suspicious of the priests and did not want them as leaders.
That's why the Talmud emphasizes the religious aspect of Hanukkah. They didn't want it to be about the Maccabees fighting for independence and their own power, but about the Jews struggling to be allowed to cling to their tradition. That's why the prayer they wrote for Hanukkah, Al Ha-Nissim, stresses the Greek empire that tried to make the Jews "forget your Torah and violate the decrees of your will."
The Jewish narrative of Hanukkah is not one of coercion - quite the opposite, it's a narrative of freedom of religion which is a liberal principle. And if there is a historical narrative of Hanukkah, and a traditional Jewish narrative, we have to add to that the secular-Zionist narrative of the Maccabees as freedom-fighers championing a nationalist and irreligious ethos. This narrative allowed the pioneers and soldiers of a young state to identify with the mythological Jewish warriors without any of the theological baggage.
Zionist poet Aharon Ze'ev, who as one of the founders of the IDF Education Corps was also a political commissar, encapsulated this narrative in the popular marching song, "We are bearing torches" with the refrain "no miracle happened to us, we did not find a jar of oil" sung at countless Hanukkah ceremonies in army units and secular schools ever since.
So who were the Maccabees? Brave rebels standing up to an evil empire, like the young fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto facing the might of Nazi Germany? Maybe their historical counterparts are the Hebrew students of Moscow and Leningrad clinging onto Jewish heritage in the face of the Soviet Union that like the Seleucid Empire tried to stamp out the heritage and culture of minorities within it? Or were they, as Hitchens wrote, ancient precursors of the Taliban, turning back the tide of enlightenment, enslaving men and women in a rigid theocracy?
As much as we might want to cling to one of the more idealistic narratives, we cannot afford to ignore Hitchens, especially as there are Jews who today aspire to be exactly that kind of Maccabees. It is not rare to hear both Haredi rabbis and religious settlers from the hilltops refer to left-wing and secular Israelis as "Hellenists" who have ditched "true" Jewish values for foreign ideals such as human rights and equality for women. Xenophobia is alive and well in the second-age Zionist state, and it pervades mainstream discourse, eroding our basic freedom while secular Israel is celebrating an empty-headed holiday of glitzy childrens' pageants and designer glazed doughnuts.
We can save Maccabean tradition though, whatever happened in BCE Judea, there is still light enough to go around. We don't have to ditch Hanukkah, but we can reclaim it.