Friday, December 26, 2008

Chanukah—the Victory of the Taliban

12/26/2008--Tonight is the beginning of the seixth day of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, thus six lights tonight. I learned growing up that Chanukah represented teh victory of religious liberty, that Antiochus Epiphanes, emperor of the Seleucid Empire, seized the Second Temple in 168 B.C., forbidding Jewish worship and requiring worship of the Greek gods instead. I was taught that the holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' 164 B.C. victory over the hellenists.

Here is how the story is usually told: The fighting began in Modiin, a village not far from Jerusalem. A Greed officer and soldiers assembled the villagers, asking them to bow to an idol and eat the flesh of a pig, activities fobidden to Jews. The officer asked Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, to take part in the ceremony. He refused and another villager stepped forward and offered to do it instead. Mattathias became outraged, took out his sword and killed the man; then he killed the officer. His five sons and the othere villagers then attacked and killed the soldiers. Mattathias' family went into hiding in the nearby moutains, where many other Jews who wanted to fight the Greeks joinged them. They attacked Greek soldiers whenever possible. After three years, Mattathias' son Judah Maccabee, Judah the hammer, retook Jerusalem. But there was not enough oil to keep the ritual menorah in the Temple lit. Miraculously, the menorah burned for eight days, enough time to procure more oil.

The later rabbis had their doubts about Chanukah. For one thing, the victory of the Maccabees led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty that persecuted religious opponents and, if I remember correctly, introduced the practice of cruxifixion of critics. The persecuted groups included the party that later became the Pharisees, who later became the rabbinic movement that created the Talmud.

In addition, the rabbis of the Talmud did not favor armed revolt against the overwhelming power of Rome, which the earlier revolt tended to inspire. Rabbinic Judaism began its life as a separate national movement with the opposition by Yochanan ben Zakkai to the war against Rome (66-73 A.D.) that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. The legend is told that during the siege of Jerusalem Zakkai arranged to be carried out of the city in a coffin so he could negotiate with the commander of the Roman forces, Vespasian. Zakkai predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor and that the Temple would soon be destroyed. In return, Vespasian granted Zakkai three wishes, including the right to resettle in Javne and continue teaching. Javne became the founding academy of Talmudic Judaism. The rabbis were realists, not zealots.

In this light, one can look differently at the range of opinion among the Jewish people at the time of the Hellenic Empires. Presumably, some of the Jews at the time did not want to give up Judaism but to begin an accommodation of Judaism to the then-modern world of Greek civilization. The mythical killing of the villager might then remind us not of religious liberty but of its opposite--of the tyranny of religious zealots who impose their fundamentalism by violence against their opponents who wish to live both religous and modern lives. In other words, the Maccabees could be viewed in a light similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan and all the other religious bigots in the world who are willing to kill those who do not follow their interpretation of religious traditions. I have often wondered why liberal Jews so love Chanukah when they would have been among the first victims of the Maccabees.

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