Comparing 'fanatic' Maccabees to modern 'Jewish hard-core'
By Natasha Mozgovaya • Ha'aretz
Hanukkah is one of the most beloved holidays within Jewish-American circles. However, one man - researcher, journalist, and commentator David Brooks - has ignited an expected flame around Festival of Lights tables across America this year.
A New York Times op-ed piece, "The Hanukkah Story," penned by Brooks and published during the holiday's first eve, is stirring heated debate table-side, as well as in the Jewish blogosphere.
Some readers declared their holiday "officially ruined," calling on Brooks to be ashamed, while others praise him for shining a light on the true nature of the lovable winter festival.
In his article, Brooks seeks to trace the historical underpinnings of Hanukkah, thus refuting its governing myth of "the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire."
The writers emphasizes the fact that the Maccabean Revolt took place in a time of internal Jewish discord which culminated in what he sees as a Jewish civil war.
While the Maccabees, who the writer says are "best understood as moderate fanatics," were "fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith," Brooks emphasizes the fact that the language they chose to justify their rebellion was in fact that of Greek law.
"They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first," Brooks wrote in his New York Times article.
While Brooks' moral to the Hanukkah story - that there is no such thing as a clean victory - isn't necessarily new, some more inflammatory comments did seem to hit a nerve with his readers, including his mentioning of the forced circumcisions the Maccabees conducted on Hellenized Jews and the idea that "Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings."
One reader went as far as arguing that Brooks "be content to see pigs slaughtered before a statues of Zeus and Apollo in the Temple," while others wrote they considered his article a personal affront, one which threatens to spoil the taste of the traditional holiday doughnut.
"What an inappropriate article," wrote Valerie from New York in her comment to the Brooks' op-ed. adding that the piece "quotes history while fully distorting the facts - and attempts to take the joy out of a beautiful holiday with a tradition of hope and renewal."
"In spite of your 'faux' intellectualism, this will be a beautiful night of family gatherings, of embracing our friends, our children and grandchildren," Valerie added.
A reader from Evanston declared his holiday "officially ruined," adding, however, that he did "appreciate the history lesson, as well as the honesty. Hard not to wonder what other lies my Sunday School teacher told me."
This latest comment made a direct reference to Brooks' article, where the writer attacks "generations of Sunday school teachers," while also mentioning the fact that West Bank settlers tell the story as one which shows how the "Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses."
A reader from Corning, New York, said he admired Brooks' "courage in attempting to clarify the complexities of this religious/political experience."
"I wish, growing up, I was taught about the mix of the spiritual and the nasty in Catholic history. You'll probably catch hell for your honesty," the reader added.
Some readers who were postivily impressed by the article, which they considered thought-provoking, were surprised to find out that they were unable to upload its link to the social networking service Facebook, as some agile readers had already reported the piece as "offensive content."
Another commentator said he was "shamed by Mr. Brooks 'Story,' saying that although he considered himself to be "well-educated and a history buff, but I thoughtlessly assumed that Hanukkah is a happy holiday."
"I'm aware that there must be other views, but I'm also aware that Mr. Brooks is not simply telling an old story; he's telling us about human history, ourselves, and where we are now, a nation divided by religions and politics and wars in a world just as divided. And yet we are preparing for holidays, all of which were born from cataclysmic violence, humans feeding the earth with the blood of humans - all for 'good' causes," the reader added.
Here is Brooks' article in full. Read it and you'll see nothing Brooks writes is extreme or inaccurate:
The Hanukkah Story
By DAVID BROOKS • New York Times
Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.
It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.
Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.
Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.
In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.
Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.
As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.
In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.
The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife — issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.
The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.
On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.
They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.
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.
No historical source contemporaneous with the Maccabee's revolt says anything about a miracle of oil, and it is absolutely clear such a 'miracle' was not celebrated until several generations later.