Maccabees and Moderns: How Chanukah Helps the Case for Hellenism

Wojchiech Stattler, Machabeusze

Elliot is a contributing editor to the Religion and Socialism blog, launching in February. For more information about the Religion and Socialism Organizing Committee, write to [email protected] This post is offered to explore to how diverse religious traditions intersect with the politics of systemic social and economic justice. – Eds

By Elliot Ratzman

The festival of Chanukah is not technically an important one in the Jewish liturgical year. As Tony Kushner puts it in a song from his musical Caroline, Or Change:

Chanukah oh Chanukah,/ oh Dreydl and Menorah!/ We celebrate it even though/ it isn’t in the Torah!/ Talmud barely mentions it,/ the way they kept their candle lit;/ sages in their colloquies /say bupkes ‘bout the Maccabees.

Yet over the last one hundred years, it has become one of the premiere American Jewish holidays, mostly due to its proximity to Christmas. As cultural historians have pointed out, the tradition of gift-giving emerged in America among newly-immigrated Jews seeking to assimilate to American culture.

Since the emergence of the Jewish national movements, the Maccabean Revolt Maccabean Revolt (c.167-160 BCE) was recast by Bundists, socialists, and Zionists of various stripes as historical inspiration for campaigns against the bourgeoisie and anti-Semites in Europe, and the British in Palestine. More mildly, the heroic Maccabees had, by the 1920’s, become the template for a new robust sense of Jewish pride and athleticism in America, Europe, and Palestine.

Speaking to the historical details of Chanukah, there is not much, on closer inspection, to uncritically admire. The story of the Hasmoneans and their war against the Hellenized Syrians and their lackeys yields a cartoon version of outsider pagans—mostly Hellenized upper-class Judeans—imposing idolatry on a pious local peasant and working class population. Indeed, the Syrian king Antiochus IV sought to impose pagan religion on his Judean subjects, including his own titular deification. The Hasmonean/Maccabean then launched a guerilla war against the Syrian Hellenists, leading to a victory and a restoration of Judean religious traditionalism. 

However tempting it may be to overlay a simple Marxian reading of class struggle in second century BCE Judea, the detailed content of that struggle remains off-putting to moderns.

The Maccabees and to some extent their pietist collaborators have been, not without merit, compared to reactionary religious movements like the Taliban. The disgust at “Hellenism”—a religious construct advocating the universal cultural aspirations of the post-Alexander world—in favor of the indigenous religious practices of the Israelites has its twisted parallel with such movements as Nigeria’s Boko Harum. Whether it is Muslim fanatics opposing “western education” for girls or Judean fanatics condemning “Greek culture,” our modern liberal hackles are raised. Tragically, racist anti-democrats such as Rabbi Meir Kahane and his followers labeled left wing and secular Jews “Hellenizers” in the face of American assimilation and Israeli pluralism.

Chanukah is then the occasion for religious socialists to consider the ambivalent legacy of our traditions.

The Hellenizing forces of the Seleucid Empire were necessary for the Second Temple Judaism of the time to evolve into what it will become: the rabbinic tradition, informed but not overwhelmed by the universalizing currents of Greek culture. But this is ancient history.

Today, religious socialists have to consider what is living and what is dead in our own traditions—both religious and political. Upstart tendencies often evoke reaction and resistance to change.

Our religions—by virtue of being human, all too human practices—inevitably find themselves caught between new contexts and old traditions. Chanukah is the yearly commemoration of one such conflict.

Hellenism was the “modernizing” force of its day. It sought to invest the human world with new forms of governance, philosophy, and technology. The price of that cultural assimilation often meant the wearing away of traditional and local forms of life. Capitalism, communism, and the varieties of socialisms in our era also sought to recast traditional and local practices to create a unified human culture. Marx thought this homogenizing sweep of capitalism—“all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy, now profaned”—would lay the groundwork for a new socialist civilization.

But are there “holy” things—from ethnic affiliation, customs, and language—that ought not to be “profaned”? How much of our particular identities are worth salvaging and how much are worth forgetting? Modernizing tendencies force religious cultures to respond. 

The question for religious socialists may entail the fact that some of our particular loyalties—ethnic, national, religious or otherwise—sometimes resist the universalizing drift of a socialist agenda. No greater example endures than the traditions of Jewish socialism. While secularist movements like the Bund (the Yiddish-advocating socialist movement) and socialist Zionism often downplayed, even ridiculed Jewish religious traditions, their emergent strands often preserved and rewired Jewish ritual, history, and lore, recasting it in a progressive, socialist idiom. More fundamentally, Jewish identity was seen by them as worth preserving over and against communism and western attempts to dismiss cultural differences as illusory. Jewish socialists rightly resisted giving up their particular identity for the “universal human” while advocating for “universal humanity.” In fact, thinkers such as Moses Hess and Herman Cohen held that it was precisely due to their particular identity as Jews that they could become the most splendid universalists.

Of course, the detailed history of the Maccabean revolt is not pretty. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s nuanced assessment of Chanukah history as a coalition of various parties united against an unjust power is here instructive. Greenberg also notes that in the decades following the Maccabean victory, the newly established priesthood became corrupt, the “liberators became tainted.” Heroes in one generation become villains in the next. Yet consider this long term view from Rabbi Greenberg’s classic work The Jewish Way:

“Had the revolt not taken place, the combination of political backing and Hellenistic cultural imperialism might have overwhelmed Judaism. Thanks to the uprising, the basic rule of Torah was assured. Hellenization continued. However, a strengthened Judaism now possessed the inner capacity to assimilate some new elements and yet remain a vital religion.”

Our task today is to resist the corroding acids of modernity against the forms of life that might, on examination, provide the cultural resources for the long-distance struggle. That rituals can have a mindfulness function as well as provide group cohesion; that worship can resist a drift towards self-centeredness; that Kosher laws can be the disciplining occasion to attune our attention; these potential re-readings of seemingly archaic traditions should not be taken lightly. Certainly religious socialists must be critical, but not knee-jerk, in how we assess the traditions we have inherited. Nevertheless, there is in our legacies the basis for creating a world free of exploitation, domination, and unwarranted suffering.

As we light candles against the darkening forces of reaction—of selfishness, fanaticism and tribalism— we should absorb enough Hellenism to evolve, but not enough to hinder our own cultures’ unique expressions of hammer-like revolt against injustice.

ElliotRatzman.png Elliot Ratzman teaches courses in race, social ethics, and Jewish Studies in the Religion Department of Temple University. He can be reached at [email protected]


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