Chanukkah

“If one could nominate an absolutely tragic day in human history, it would be the occasion that is now commemorated by the vapid and annoying holiday known as ‘Hannukah.’ For once, instead of Christianity plagiarizing from Judaism, the Jews borrow shamelessly from Christians in the pathetic hope of a celebration that coincides with ‘Christmas,’ which is itself a quasi-Christian annexation…. Here is the terminus to which banal ‘multiculturalism’ has brought us…. The Maccabees, who founded the Hasmonean dynasty, were forcibly restoring Mosaic fundamentalism against the many Jews of Palestine and elsewhere who had become more attracted by Hellenism. These true early multuculturalists had become bored by ‘the law,’ offended by circumcision, interested in Greek literature, drawn by the physical and intellectual exercises of the gymnasium, and rather adept at philosophy….” – Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 273-274.

 

How about a bit of Jewish history?

The rabbis in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) ask, as if they did not know, “What is Chanukkah?”, to explain that on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (in 164 BCE), the Jewish guerilla fighters, led by Matityahu (Mattatias, in Greek) and his sons (“Hasmoneans” or Hashmonai in Hebrew), defeated the “[Syrian-] Greeks” who seized and ransacked the Jerusalem Temple (in 167 BCE). Upon breaking the barricade, the Hasmoneans found only one undefiled cruse of oil left to light the Menorah, the large candelabrum in the Temple sanctuary, which miraculously burned for eight days. The end.

Now, let’s get serious. The guerilla rebels ambushed the powerful Syrian-Greek mercenary army for three years, and, in the end, – all the fuss, all the commotion, all the gore – in order to light the Menorah!? The miracle of the oil must have been quite a consolation prize.

If we were to supplement this succinct Talmudic account with what we know from other (more) historical sources, this miracle of the oil happened in the most unfavorable and adverse of circumstances. The city of Jerusalem, let alone the tiny province of Judea, was still very much under full iron-clad rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian-Greek emperor. The rebels were holed up and surrounded by a powerful adversary that was fully in control of Jerusalem. Antiochus might have allowed the rebels to congregate in the Temple to flush them out for once and for all.

Chanukkah, the “consecration” of the Temple, refers to the Biblically-ordained eight-day process of ritually purifying the Temple, which should not be confused with “national liberation” in our modern parlance. It took the Hasmoneans another twenty or more years to retake Jerusalem and its environs. The Talmud says nothing about what subsequently happened, nor does it say much about the Hasmonean dynasty, the Jewish royal family to rule the last time Jews had a sovereign state in Palestine before 1948, whose military and diplomatic achievements expanded the territory of Judea to rival that of the fabled Kingdom of David.

This question why the Talmud focuses on the “consecration” of the Temple, ending the story with the miracle of the oil, is quite old. Some suggest the Talmud meant to minimize the military victory in the Chanukkah celebration. What the rebels pulled off, beating back the superior Syrian-Greek army, was a remarkable military feat, but was it actually a military victory? Judea was still very much under the Syrian-Greek yoke.

What about the other common misconception in Hitchens’ quote above that Chanukkah commemorates the triumph of Judaism over Hellenism? It would be utterly foolish to ignore how much Judaism owes to Hellenism: in law, – yes, Talmudic law, – in logic, in philosophy, in mysticism, etc. At the time of the Chanukkah story, there were Judeans who touted Hellenism as an ideology in their quest for power, but all Judeans without exception shared the political culture and economy that was by then deeply Hellenistic, especially in towns along the coastal plains or urban centers like Jerusalem.

Judaism and Hellenism naturally coexisted, co-extended, and cross-pollinated. The problem was not with Hellenism per se, which was an all-encompassing pagan universalism that incorporated many indigenous cultures in the Near East and around the Mediterrenean basin. The boundary line between Judaism and Hellenism was determined more by Jewish observance (ancestral customs) than theology. Judeans were influenced by a variety of pagan beliefs, to the point that according to puritan monotheistic standards, they were quite pagan, as well. Significantly, Matityahu launched the rebellion by crying out, “Who is among the gods, like you, oh God?” (based on Biblical verse).

Nevertheless, specifically the battle cry in Greek, Heis Deus (“God is One!” or “There is one God!”), took on an important meaning in the Chanukkah story. It became a quintessential slogan of the Hasmoneans and their supporters, although there were also powerful Judeans who were ideologically opposed to this slogan. In the latter case, this ideological Hellenism was twofold:

(a) In the intellectual-cultural sense, one may worship only one God, but to deny the existence of other gods was considered as an affront to the various peoples who worshipped them. The Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, were basically monotheists; logic dictated there had to be only single Prime Cause, for example; but, they did not deny the existence of “demi-gods” or divine beings like angels. They did not disrespect the cultures that worshipped them.

(b) In the geo-political sense, Antiochus Epiphanes could not have attempted to suppress Jewish observances, – the casus belli for the Hasmonean rebellion that in the Talmud concluded with the miracle of the oil, –  without the support of a powerful caucus of Judeans in and about Jerusalem for whom Hellenism was the royal road to regional power. These Judeans were Hellenizers in the specific sense that they considered Jewish ancestral customs fundamentally incompatible with Hellenism, which included loyalty to the emperor, Antiochus, who was also considered divine (Epiphanes).

This Antiochus was also one of the most powerful rulers in the world at this time. Was he so naive as to think he could change, alter, reengineer an entire Jewish people or culture?

In fact, the whole brouhaha of Chanukkah, Judeans in power in Jerusalem loyal to Antiochus helped to finance his invasion of Egypt. It was after Antiochus capitulated to the Roman demands not to conquer Egypt, he ransacked the Jerusalem Temple to pay his mercenary army. Judeans riots and he retaliated by enforcing the Hellenizers’ agenda and suppressing the Jewish observances that specifically preserved Jewish distinctiveness, – like circumcision or the Sabbath rest, etc.

In this context, it seems to me, the Hasmonean rebels fought for the “consecration” of the Temple, to show Judaism was not incompatible with Hellenist culture, that pagan universalism was not incompatible with Jewish particularism, and that the existence of the Jews following their ancestral customs was not incompatible with the Hellenist world. So, in hindsight, the miracle of the oil points to perseverance of Jewish culture even when Jews were quite adept at undermining their own culture, whether or not they claimed to represent the Jewish people.

Hannukah & Christmas

Last year, on Christmas, I wrote the following on the student feed (SJSU Sammy):

“hmm…. a little food for thought. Hanukkah is not Jewish Christmas. Hannukah predates Christmas by 160 years. But is Christmas a Christian Hannukah? Let’s see. “Hannukah” from Hebrew meaning “dedication” (or, in the Jewish holiday sense, the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, a kind of ritual homecoming, after it was made impure from Syrian Greek takeover – anyway, a long story). In Christianity, Jesus came to replace the Temple – be the new Temple… hmmmm.”

This year, Hannukah in the Hebrew calendar overlaps with Christmas, so I understand the confusion. In fact, in the comments section, one student wrote: “Christmas is also nonreligious in a way. for many people at least.” Another student wrote in response, “that only really works that way when you live in a country where Christianity is the dominant religion… Christian holidays are not the default for secular life…” The main take away from this exchange, I think, is the following: secular or religious, Christmas is the dominant frame of reference in American society for Hannukah. The holiday that was relatively minor in importance on the Jewish calendar became one of the more nationally commemorated Jewish holidays in the United States.

This year, history student, Paloma Urciouli, curated the small Hannukah exhibit next to my office.

3rd International Conference on Israel and Judaism in Izmir, Turkey

ISRAILIYAT: JOURNAL OF ISRAELI AND JUDAIC STUDIES
THIRD INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ISRAEL AND JUDAISM STUDIES (ICIJS’19)
ÜÇÜNCÜ ULUSLARARASI İSRAİL VE YAHUDİLİK ÇALIŞMALARI KONFERANSI (ICIJS’19)
הכנס הבינלאומי השני לחקר ישראל והיהדות
المؤتمر الدولي الثالث للدراسات الإسرائيلية واليهوديةThe 3rd International Conference on Israel and Judaism Studies which is organized by Israiliyat: The Journal of Israel and Judaic Studies will be held on 8- 10 November 2019 in Izmir with the cooperation and hosting of Izmir Democracy University. In the conference, 115 participants will present 105 papers in total. In addition to 77 participants affiliated with institutions in Turkey, 28 foreign participants affiliated with institutions from 10 countries will present papers: Bangladesh, Canada, Cyprus (2), Greece, India (2), Israel (13) Azerbaijan (2) Poland, Kazakhstan, Palestine (2), Turkmenistan, and USA. This year’s conference theme Turning Points: Change and Continuity in Judaism and Israel aims to put forward historic moments and critical junctures that Judaism and Israel have passed during the historical process and by doing so creating a discussion platform on which the currents effects of those junctures and moments on Israel and Judaism would be scrutinized. The program includes the traditional fields of Jewish studies such as Jewish theology as well as the issues regarding Israeli studies within the fields such as politics, international relations, history, sociology etc. The focus of the papers that would be presented is to be diverse: Zionism, Israeli culture and politics, Israeli- Palestinian Conflict, Hebrew literature, education in Israel, the various interpretations of Judaism and its historical roots etc. More information about the conference can be found via the conference web page. The Conference whose third is to be held in Izmir this year, being the only periodic platform on Israel and Judaism studies in Turkey aims to create a constructive forum during which researchers from various disciplines would gather and exchange ideas.

Stereotyped?

Yesterday, in a thrift shop on Lincoln Ave. in Willow Glen, a woman approached me and asked: “Excuse me, is today a special Jewish day, like a holiday?”

”I don’t know,” I said, trying to plumb the depth of such a question.

“Oh,” she continued, puzzled, “well, it’s because my daughter is going out with a Jewish guy, I am going to meet him later today, and I don’t want to appear ignorant.”

“Good luck,” I said and we parted smiling to each other.

Interpret this encounter as you wish.

Ilhan Omar’s Kerchief

My wife, Ruthie, wears a kerchief every day. She is an Orthodox Jew, like me. Orthodox Jewish women, like Muslim women, cover their hair. Only, Muslim women also cover their ears (and, sometimes, necks, as well), while Orthodox Jewish women do not (except for a small sect in Modiin, Israel, where women don a burqa). In fact, some suggest that traditionally Jewish women got their practice of covering their hair from Muslim women.

I remember once when Ruthie saw a picture of Ilhan Omar in the newspaper for the first time and she was immediately inspired by Omar’s beauty with a kerchief styled in the same way she put its on. Ruthie always struggled to cover her hair with a kerchief, day in and day out, in college, at the workplace, because of the way she sometimes invites people’s glances or even because of the way she is sometimes treated: as someone different and strange. When interviewing for a job in th Bay Area, for example, the kerchief may not help. The fact that Ilhan Omar covers her hair in public as a congresswoman every day, on every picture, in every tabloid, is an immense inspiration.

And, then, Omar opens her mouth about Israel and Jews, without an ounce of sensitivity for rhetoric, which does not help anyone, especially Israelis and Palestinians. She especially sets a bad example for reasonable dialogue among the young people of this country. 

 
And today the government of Israel is cowering to Trump’s demands not to let Omar into Israel. Whatever Omar might say, the congresswoman should be able to inspire and to un-inspire us in Israel, as well.

Today the 9th of Av

     Traditionally, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av is the day of mourning and supplication and fasting and commemoration of all the suffering that the Jewish people went through over the centuries. This includes the Holocaust, of course.

     There are two other nontraditional memorial days of Holocaust. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27th, when the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in 1945. The other is the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, called Yom HaShoah, and is commemorated in Israel and by Jewish communities around the world in solidarity with Israel. The 27th of of the Hebrew month of Nissan (which falls either in April or May in the Solar calendar) marks the irruption of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (in April 19, 1943), which makes sense for Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. (The Warsaw Ghetto uprising that remarkably fended off the German wehrmacht, undoubtedly at the time the most powerful army in the world, for over one month, irrupted after the last ghetto residents found out [through the help of the Polish underground resistance movement] that over three million of their brethren had been systematically gassed in the German-occupied Poland between the springs of 1942 and 1943.)   

     There is an eerie difference between the traditional day of commemoration and the nontraditional memorial days. For one, both memorial days commemorate the human motive for liberation from collective suffering. The traditional day of commemorating collective suffering had been designated over time as the day of disaster, the cruel suffering itself. In other words, the most cruel suffering in Jewish history is collapsed into the one traditional day: the 9th of Av.

     The 9th of Av is especially when the sacking of the 1st and the 2nd Jerusalem Temples had been commemorated in Jewish communities for over two millennia. In fact, the 9th of Av is not the day when both Temples fell. The 1st Jerusalem Temple fell in 586 BCE on the 7th of Av and the 2nd Jerusalem Temple fell in 70 CE on the 10th of Av. But both dates were collapsed into one, the 9th of Av. In the course of the last two thousand years, the most dramatic events of Jewish suffering were added to the same day of commemoration, fasting, and supplication, according to the traditional Jewish calendar, even if those events really happened on completely different days. One of the primary reasons for this conflation is rather simple: to synchronize the mourning period of the various Jewish communities scattered about the world.   

     The second main difference between the traditional and nontraditional days of remembering the Holocaust is the major conflict between the traditional and the non-traditional reckoning. While the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th does not seem to conflict with the accepted Jewish calendar of the last two millennia, Yom HaShoah does conflict with the month of Nissan, which is the first month of the traditional Jewish calendar, a month of joy and celebration in the birth of the Jewish people as highlighted by the prevalent communal celebration of Passover (Pesach) to this very day. Life is full of contradictions.

The Canaanite god, Baal-Peor, in Downtown San Jose. Ha!?

Would you imagine my bewilderment [predicament]!? I was taking a leisurely stroll around the block from my office this morning to “get a piece of fresh air,” as they say. The cars zooming by, the birds chirping, the soft breeze on my prickly face, the glowing rotunda of the post-modern San Jose City Hall that lost its ’90s luster, rising before me on the horizon. As I approached the back entrance of City Hall, I looked up and  BEHOLD!:

You can imagine my confusion. I was staring at the backside of the statue with the dome of the rotunda of the City Hall before me like in procession.

I slowly pivoted around to witness the great, mighty, and colorful cow.

 

“Wow,” I thought, “the Canaanite god, Baal-Peor! Here, in San Jose!?”

How funny it is to stumble on the backside of the statue of a cow to let you know, “BEHOLD, you are about to enter the sacred  of the City Hall FROM THE BEHIND.”

Black Power, Martin L. King, and Zionism

     Incidentally, I met the actual author of Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend,” which is conclusively (and without-any-shadow-0f-doubt) forged. The real author produced the “Letter” in a discussion thread on the internet back in 1988 (at Stanford)!

     In fact, King’s views on Israel and Zionism have only been recently deciphered by scholars. Not surprisingly, they are complex and he would never have conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Of particular importance is chapter 4 in Micheal Fischbach’s Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford University Press, 2018). You can listen to Fischbach about his book in an Interview, which includes his overview of chapter 4.