Monday, December 18, 2017

Chanukah—Another Day, Some Other Way

It might be that the real backstory of Chanukah is the one they don’t want to tell you.  

In this age of “whataboutism”, it might be time they did.

A recent facebook “debate” centered around a thesis proferred by the late Christopher Hitchens—as a “religious” atheist if there ever was one—for whom the paradigmatic beta noire of a holiday was Chanukah, "the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason”.

In fact, some who are otherwise not reluctant to celebrate Chanukah publicly and ignore the implication that the holiday ostensibly represents a “victory of faith over reason” have nevertheless been bothered by three specific facets of the narrative:

1] That the holiday might centers around the first civli war in Jewish history where the victory of one side over the the other is celebrated; usually, where there is civil strife in the classic literature—for example, Tu b’Av as a coda to Pilegesh b’Givah—the reconciliation, and not a/ther victory, is what gets celebrated;

2] That the victors achieved victory through two means that might have been decried even then, certainly now: religious coercion and guerrilla warfare;

3] And that the victors—as they were primarily from the Preistly caste—ultimate shattered the Israelite Torah version of “separation of powers” that had been a central operating principle in religious legislation.

In fact, as the celebration has become as established as it did, there is no reason to diminish it and hide the ostensible “warts”, but real them for the lessons they teach.

For one thing, it should be easy to dismiss Hitchens, and Yoram hazy and others do just that.  To wit: Greek philosophy was based on the notion that it has been revealed by the oracles; the fight, then was between two “faiths”, rather than between faith and reason.  In fact, the Greeks derided Judaism as too rational and not sufficiently revelatory.

In which case: the coercion started with the Greeks, and the Jews who joined them weren’t just looking to be “frei”—they were actively taking sides against their own.  One might even argue that the Maccabean coercion wasn’t coercion “lishmah”: it was a hora’as sha’ah to keep other Jews from switching sides or turning in their own; almost a way to avoid killing quislings who might otherwise have killed you.  

That gets you to the first point: sometimes being extreme is necessary.  But to paraphrase Rabbi Norman Lamm—one can be extreme, but being extremist is certainly not ideal.  One might want to maintain a high level of spiritual commitment, and might be tempted to utlliize the same extreme tactics to maintain those levels that were forged in crises.  But it’s JEWISH history that instructs us that such approaches are less than sustainable.

There are two other examples aside from Chanukah that hint at this narrative of caution.  One is Pinchas.  It was in these pages where an attempt to cast Pinchas’ action against Zimri and Kozbi as extreme rather than extremist appeared some time ago.  To further exemplify the pitfalls of zealous approaches, Pinchas himself ostensibly comes into play twice later on in Tanach; once when he refuses to make accommodations to allow Yiftach to undo his thoughtless vow, and he can’t prevent the internecine mass bloodshed and national crisis that results from pesel Micha and Pilegesh b’Givah.

Another is Chizkiyahu.  Unwilling to commit to procreation because of visions of the inevitable corruption of his offspring until forced to, he imposes a very effective national system of education—at swordpoint. [Why link the two?  Consider: like Yaakov, Chikiyahu feared extremist tendencies: knowing what his son might be like and what he might have to do to keep him in line, it might have come out instead on a national level.]  What’s often quoted about this pedagogical method is the tangible results: children of both genders knew hilchos tumah v’tahara.   What’s often not pointed out is: the precipitating factor wasn’t so much a perceived lack of knowledge as it was a war of extermination being waged by Sancheriv, who had already conquered the other ten tribes; Chizkiyahu likely rightly feared that the tendency to fervently pray for deliverance would overwhelm educational prerogatives, to the spiritual and mortal detriment of his nation.  Either way, it worked at the time, but the rapid moral and spiritual descent of the nation after his passing is stark.

Finally—in an almost Chekovian fashion (“Any fool can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out”), we have the 8th day Chanukah laining, an almost spiritual rush of the last five korbanos nesi’im, and the beginning of Beha’alosecha almost as an afterthought…or is it?  Is that why the day to day of hatavas haneros involves Aharon, to indicate the importance of the day to day and not necessarily the sustained high?

Sometimes, even if one has been on a “right" “way”, one might have to find another “way”.  

Sometimes one will be forced to find that “other way”.   The deflection isn't always a reflection of a spiritual defect more than might be indicative of unfulfilled potential.   While that knowledge might not necessarily make such an ostensibly forced shift any less painful, maybe the ability to make that distinction might help better meet such a challenge when it arises.

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