Posted by: Steve Coplan | December 21, 2006

Philo vs the Maccabees

In general, December 26th can’t arrive quickly enough for me. In many ways, I would prefer that Christmas preserved its religious narrative than simply become a convenient excuse to justify the impulse for unrestrained consumerism. Which is why I find efforts, unconscious or not, to somehow equate Hanukah with Christmas entirely ludicrous. In terms of the broad outlines of the festivals, there are few similarities. As any idiot knows, Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ and by extension the immaculate conception (although this is a layer of meaning added later on the development of Christianity). While there has clearly been some debate on the whole messiah aspect of the story, the social revolutionary in me sees the birth in the manger as a parable for justice and equality. I have too much direct experience with mangers, but being born in one doesn’t seem like the most obvious start to saving the world. As a father too, the image of baby Jesus is a reminder that we should lost sight of the potential in humanity. That said, I less than pleased my two-year old has expressed an interest in “Unta Claus”. Given the pervasiveness of Christmas, I don’t find it surprising a minor holiday has become so elevated amongst American Jews, but its elevation is misleading. Maimonides says in his Mishneh Torah that a Jew should sell the shirt off his back in order to buy candles to light the menorah, but equally lighting Shabbat candles takes precedence over lighting the Hanukah candles. Shabbat occurs once a week, not once a year.

The miracle of the eight days, was first instituted to mark the victory of an insurrection against the local Seleucid dynasty, founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Technically speaking, Hanukah commemorates that the oil the insurgents discovered in the temple lasted for eight days, rather than the military victory since wars are not traditionally celebrated. That the Maccabees (like Molotov an invented name for symbolic impact) were guerillas from rural backwaters intent on displacing the collaborationist elite is generally left unsaid. The Seleucids did specifically set out to ban certain Jewish practices and impose Hellenism, but it was the high priests who accomodated them that were the target of the Maccabees. Their purity of their purpose was dissipated, evidenced by the prevalence of Greek names in the lines of the Hasmonean dynasty the Maccabees founded, and was ended by the rise of Herod.

In order to deflect from the putative civil war, retellings of the period focus on the Greeks as fundamentally opposed to Judaism. Although his book was preceded by an empire-wide Jewish rebellion prompted by Caligula’s attempt to restrict religious freedom, Philo of Alexandria set out to reconcile Greek philosophy with Judaism about 100 years after the Maccabean insurgency. Alexandria at the start of the first millenium was the New York of its day, with Jews accounting for somewhere between a third and a quarter of the city’s inhabitants, highly assimilated and affluent. Philo’s idea that reason and the soul could co-exist was quickly discarded by mainstream Judaism but preserved in Christian thought. In fact, Maimonides who set out to position reason and rational thought as central to a theology of Judaism doesn’t make any mention of Philo in any of his writings.

The embrace of Hanukah as festival of national pride even as we participate as full citizens in a secular democracy rather than acelebration of the triumph of religious zealotry in the name of territorial independence is then both entirely appropriate in the context of looking to external sources of nourishment and inappropriate in terms of preserving a ‘purity’. It’s unclear what the future of Judaism would have been without the Maccabees, but it’s important to recognize that while it represented a bottleneck and didn’t ultimately blunt the impact of Hellenism, it was one of many in Jewish history. Ironically, it was Philo’s intellectual successor Maimonides who was in the center of medieval Jewry’s bottleneck that gave rise to the Kabbalah.

This review of the parsha from Yeshivat Choveivei Torah using the analogy of Jacob and Esau’s enmity picks up on the same theme. And just for laughs: War on Hanukkah.

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