Confronting the December Dilemma I have always felt that Hanukah never had a chance. Christmas is an “Imagine” holiday where we are invited to aspire to a world of Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man. Hanukah is a (nother) Jewish survival holiday… They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.
In my first post on this blog Imagining Shabbat, I argued that to have a winning horse in the “Imagine” race, I would suggest Shabbat; a Jewish holiday that actually comes 52 times a year and aspires to Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man as well, if not better, than any holiday I know.
That being said, conflicting feelings about the Hanukah remain.
Certainly the Maccabees serve as a wonderful model of Jews standing up for their rights and fighting…. literally fighting, for their independence. I also admire Judah the Maccabee’s pragmatism for establishing the precedent that Jews can defend themselves on the Shabbat. But certainly tolerance and pluralism is not a word associated with the Maccabees and later generations of Maccabee priests/rulers were known for their corruption. The Hasmonean dynasty was a precursor for King Herod and the Herodian dynasty. The Maccabees thrived on power and we all know the power of power to corrupt.
I have always figured that it was a pacifistic strain in Rabbinic Judaism that was responsible for emasculating the Maccabees and modulating the militaristic nature of their victory by providing a cute story of miraculously energy efficient oil. I attributed this pacifism with the Rabbi’s decision not to include the Book of the Maccabees in the Canon of the Hebrew Bible.
It turns out that the Rabbinic ambivalence to the Maccabees was for another reason… a reason that actually makes me a fan of the Maccabees and gives me added reason to celebrate Hanukah.
Since I love going to the sources, I bought myself a copy of the Anchor Bible‘s Book of First Maccabees and it turns out that this book which we now have only in Greek, but which was originally written in Hebrew may have included a heresy that the Rabbis wished to hide. It turns our that “First Maccabees, rejects Daniel 7-12  and the belief in the resurrection and suggests that martyrdom can be in vain”. It turns out that Judah the Maccabee’s real ideological polemic was not with the Jewish Hellenists, but rather with compatriot Jews who wished to conquer the Greek Hellenists and curry God’s favor (and redemption) by way of martyrdom. (see Jonathan A. Goldstein, I Maccabees, a new translation with introduction and commentary, The Anchor Bible 1976, p 56)
First Maccabees is actually a first class work. “The author is generally well informed on Seleucid institutions. He probably intended to add his work to the sacred scriptures of the Jews. However, it was destined to be rejected. The later history of the Hasmonaeean dynasty proved false our author’s claim that God had chosen mattathias’ line to be both high priests and kings. Belief in the resurrection, denied by our author, became a fundamental of Judaism. Already Josephus was amending the text of First Maccabees and departing from its narrative as he would never have done with sacred scripture. In the times of Origen and Jerome, when the Hebrew was still being read by Jews, First Maccabees was clearly outside the canon of the Jewish scriptures. The book is never mentioned or quoted by the tannaim and the amoraim. Medieval Jews begin to know its contents from the Latin and Greek versions and from Josephus.” [Goldstein ibid. p 26)
According to Goldstein, what is blatantly missing from I Maccabees I 50 -64 is any glorification of the death of the Jewish protagonists:
50 Whoever refused to act according to the command of the king was to be put to death.
57 Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree.
60 In keeping with the decree, they put to death women who had their children circumcised,
61 and they hung their babies from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.
62 But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean;
63 they preferred to die rather than to be defiled with food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.
64 And very great wrath came upon Israel. (see)
Writes Goldstein: “Pietists before had tried to rouse God’s vengeance against the persecuting gentiles by displaying helpless martyrdom, …. Martyrdom was unnecessary, they held; display of mere helplessness by the pious would rouse God to act… (Goldstein ibid p. 262)
Compare also I Maccabees 2: 29 – 41
29 At that time many who sought righteousness and justice went out into the wilderness to settle there,
30 they and their children, their wives and their animals, because misfortunes pressed so hard on them.
31 It was reported to the officers and soldiers of the king who were in the City of David, in Jerusalem, that those who had flouted the king’s order had gone out to secret refuges in the wilderness.
32 Many hurried out after them, and having caught up with them, camped opposite and prepared to attack them on the sabbath.
33 The pursuers said to them, “Enough of this! Come out and obey the king’s command, and you will live.”
34 But they replied, “We will not come out, nor will we obey the king’s command to profane the sabbath.”
35 Then the enemy attacked them at once.
36 But they did not retaliate; they neither threw stones, nor blocked up their secret refuges.
37 They said, “Let us all die in innocence; heaven and earth are our witnesses that you destroy us unjustly.”
38 So the officers and soldiers attacked them on the sabbath, and they died with their wives, their children and their animals, to the number of a thousand persons.
39 When Mattathias and his friends heard of it, they mourned deeply for them.
40 They said to one another, “If we all do as our kindred have done, and do not fight against the Gentiles for our lives and our laws, they will soon destroy us from the earth.”
41 So on that day they came to this decision: “Let us fight against anyone who attacks us on the sabbath, so that we may not all die as our kindred died in their secret refuges.” (see)
To appreciate how Mattathias and his friends disparage the martyrdom of these pietists we need to contrast this account in I Maccabees with the (originally) Greek II Maccabees 2: 6: 18 -31 (Martyrdom of Eleazar)
18 Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.
19 But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture,
20 spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
21 Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king.
22 Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.
23 But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!”
24 “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion.
25 If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age.
26 Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty.
27 Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age,
28 and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture.
29 Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.
30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.”
31 This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation. (see)
And II Maccabees chapter 7 Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons
1 It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.
2 One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
3 At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated.
4 These were quickly heated, and he gave the order 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.
5 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 from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words:
6 “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”
7 After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?”
8 Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.
9 With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”
10 After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,11as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”
12 Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.
13 After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.
14 When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”
15 They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him.
16 Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God.
17 Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”
18 After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.
19 Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”
20 Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.21Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:22e “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.
23 Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”
24 Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.
25 When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.
26 After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.
27 She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.
28 I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way humankind came into existence.
29 Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”
30 She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.
31 But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God.
32 We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins.
33 Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants.
34 But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven.
35 You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.
36 Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.
37 Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God.
38 Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”
39 At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.
40 Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.
41 Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.
42 Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties. (see)
If Goldstein is correct and the Hebrew original of First Maccabees was sentenced to the dust heap because it failed to show any enthusiasm for martyrdom, an eternal life or resurrection of the dead then our celebration of the Maccabees becomes a celebration of a Judaism free of the eschatology of end-of-day Armageddons and Messiahs, both real and false.
As troubling to our modern ears as the violence and intolerance of Judah and his band may be, at least it was not informed by a desire for a New Jerusalem or a Greater Israel. Theirs was a battle for cultural, religious and physical independence, and nothing more.
In the final analysis, it may be that Hanukah is actually the perfect antidote for a messianic Christmas.
If the Peace-on-Earth and Goodwill-to-Man of Christmas is of the Second Coming variety, then the Hanukah of the Maccabees can be taken as a rejection of such change of world orders through martyrdom (whether of a god or a foot soldier) ideologies.
If so much vitriol and violence in our world is the result of this insane desire to harken a savior, messiah, hidden Mahdi or second coming, then the Maccabees that I celebrate, for all their faults, at least believed that independence is as good as it gets and that, my friends, is worth its weight in hanukah gelt.
 Especially Daniel 12: 2 “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.” and further discussion in II Maccabees, Anchor Bible pp 63.. and see full discussion pp 293 .. and pp 303
2 responses to “as good as it gets”
fabulous, if difficult post Geoffry, thanks e
Edward Jacobs Mishkenot Initiatives email@example.com Israel Cell: +972 (0)54 55 11 843 USA Cell: 917 749 8400 International: 929 255 1622 Skype: mishkenot
Thanks… my friend