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Hanukah, if you follow the conventional view, is a holiday celebrating Jewish freedom. It marks a miraculous victory by Judean forces against a powerful foreign invader who sullied the Temple and sought to enslave the Jews. Zionism has foisted a number of these versions of history upon us; co-opting the holiday, transforming it into a celebration of Israeli national identity: just as the Maccabees liberated themselves from Greek rule and its Hellenist collaborators, so Israel liberated itself from British rule. Just as the ancient Hasmoneans established Jewish sovereignty, so Zionism succeeded in establishing a Jewish national state.
That’s the legend. Some of you cinephiles old enough will recall the memorable line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” That’s the case with Hanukah. It, and much of ancient Jewish history is shrouded in legend; and much of the legend is wrong. Much of it is refracted through a lens of modern necessity. We dress up the past to serve the needs of the present. So Zionism has appropriated the past in service to its own national vision. However, by creating a false version of the past, it has exposed its own weakness.
While the Maccabees did fight and win a battle against Antiochus IV, it ushered in a short era of Judean greatness. Over time, the Hasmoneans became as corrupt and violent as the Greeks they vanquished. Near the end, they themselves invited a new foreign invader to maintain their own tyrannical regime. Rome eventually ended the Hasmonean dynasty. A bitter irony for those who had won the original battle, only to lose a war to a different foreign conqueror.
The two Books of Maccabees were omitted from the Biblical canon by the Talmudic rabbis who formalized it. Though there is speculation about the reasons for its exclusion, there is one persuasive theory. It suggests the rabbis–who survived the disastrous Judean revolts against the Romans, which concluded with the destruction of the Temple, the razing of Jerusalem, and dispersion of many of its inhabitants–found that it offered a destructive model. Their role was to devise a long-term strategy to ensure Jewish survival. In doing so, they created a (more or less) centralized set of sacred texts, alongside a decentralized communal structure, which permitted diversity and maximum flexibility for the far-flung Diasporic Jewish communities. For two millenia, it was the Jewish Diaspora which saved the Jewish people. As such, the rabbis would have been loathe to canonize books which celebrated a dynasty founded in a violent revolt, and later vanquished amidst its own corruption and brutality.
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Nevertheless, Zionism was in need of heroes. It needed a history that ratified its own ambitions. So it turned to the Maccabees and “printed the legend.” But today, we are not bound by Zionism or its mythmaking. In fact, analyzing the distortions it brought to Jewish history exposes its contradictions.
Archaeology has also played a critical role in Israeli mythmaking. Yigal Yadin’s famous discoveries of the Qumran Scrolls and excavations at Masada, offered a narrative of militant heroism and ultimate self-sacrifice during the Judean revolt against Rome. He also promoted Josephus’ now discredited myth of the mass suicide of Masada’s defenders in the face of certain death at the hands of the Roman legions. There is little credible evidence supporting Josephus’ account. But Zionism needed a heroic myth to fuel its own national ambitions. So it was not averse to falsifying (or “embellishing” depending on your view) history in service to its vision. However, once a people comes to believe its myths, it will make disastrous decisions based on false assumptions of its own power and virtue.
There were two factions in ancient Judea fighting for domination: the Hellenizers, who sought to integrate Judaism with the prevailing Hellenist culture; and the Hasmoneans, a fundamentalist movement seeking to retain ancient traditions and to purify Judaism of any foreign influence. Similarly, there were two factions within Zionism struggling for dominance: the cultural Zionists active in the half-century before World War II, who rejected the primacy of a Jewish nation-state and believed in peaceful co-existence with the native Palestinians; and the political Zionists whose goal was creating a national state. They understood that this would bring them into conflict with the indigenous inhabitants, and that they would have to dominate them by force of arms. This mirrors the Hasmonean approach as well.
The Holocaust ended this struggle. Those favoring accommodation were drowned out by the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry. The victorious political Zionists then transformed their own version of Jewish history into the prevailing narrative: the same history taught to many of us in Hebrew school or summer camps.
Today’s Israel is the outcome of a movement that believed its own myths. One that transformed itself into the very corrupt, brutalist regime the Hasmoneans had been. Israel, in particular its incoming government, embodies the paranoia, xenophobia, militarism, and fundamentalism of the ancient Maccabees. It also parallels the end stage of the royal dynasty, in its reliance on the military weaponry and global dominance of a superpower ally.
Zionism today is a form of rejection of Yavneh’s Disaporic Judaism. It boasts of the centrality and supremacy of Israel to Jewish peoplehood. But it’s critical to remember which side won out in after the suppression of the last Judean revolt.
We have already seen in that ancient history, what happens when Jews resort to military might to assert their sovereignty; and what happens when Judaism becomes centralized in a single place under a single dominant theology or political regime. Regimes like the fascist government Israel has elected will, in the long-term, end in disaster both for Israel and the Jewish people. Just as the Maccabean dynasty did for ancient Judeans.
I’ve written many Hanukah posts over the past twenty years. Here are a few. I especially recommend the first one as an offering an alternative spiritual approach to Hanukah:
Hanukah: Holiday of Spiritual Renewal or Jewish Nationalism?
Festival of Light: Hanukah Folk Music
Hanukah 2011: Days of Darkness
[comment deleted: when you become the Jewish Pope then you can decide who is Jewish and who isn’t. BUt I will not let you decide that. After your later comment claiming Biden was senile, you are now moderated. Try to publish another such comment and you will be banned. Also, do not publish more than a single comment in any comment thread.]
Frank Quincey says
Try addressing the substance of his remarks, not immediately rushing like Barry Allen to the old, heinous tactic of gate-keeping one’s heritage.
Richard Silverstein says
@ Frank: Yeah, that’s dead-on. It makes me nuts when anyone, Jew or non-Jew, tries to define who are good Jews or bad Jews. And who isn’t a Jew at all because…well, because they aren’t the sort of Jew I agree is a Jew. That’s why I deleted that offensive comment.
Bertrand Engelsdorf says
You said: “Yigal Yadin’s famous discoveries of the Qumran Scrolls and excavations at Masada, offered a narrative of militant heroism…”
Yigal Yadin didn’t discover the DSS, although he did play an important role in the acquisition of the scrolls from Qumran Cave I that had been taken to the United States by the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem. Yadin’s piecemeal translations and publishing of Scroll bits has nothing to do with any ‘narrative of militant heroism’. He was, and remains, a brilliant and respected scholar and archeologist.
Regarding Masada, why wouldn’t Yadin have assumed that Josephus account of mass suicide was correct when the Roman siege ramp, the ‘lot’ ostracon discoveries, and other signs of Zealot occupation, fully supported Josephus account?
Did Yadin misuse archaeological evidence to support a nationalistic agenda, as you and some scholars have suggested?
Amnon Ben-Tor, who is now the Yigael Yadin Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, had excavated with Yadin at Masada, and has published a spirited defence of Yadin and his findings, titled Back to Masada (2009). In this book, Ben-Tor went through the archaeology again, dismissing each of points of contention, and basically confirming Yadin’s point of view.
Your attempt at villainizing a brilliant scholar and archeologist is, to say the least, misguided.
You said: “The two Books of Maccabees were omitted from the Biblical canon by the Talmudic rabbis who formalized it. ”
I thought that the final redaction and canonization of the Torah book, therefore, most likely took place during the Babylonian Exile (6th–5th century BCE), hundreds of years before the time of the Talmudic rabbis.
Richard Silverstein says
Whatever Yadin’s accomplishments (and they are in dispute), he was a nationalist hack, peddling a narrative that coincided with Israel’s needs for ancient heroes, martyrs and victories. Most societies have such national narratives, most of the embellished if not invented. Israel is no different.
Welp, maybe because Yadin actually found the remains of only two bodies in the entire Massada complex. Not 10, not 100 and certainly not 988. Nor do any of the claims you offer about archaelogical evidence support the claim of martyrdom. They don’t even confirm what the outcome of the siege was, though at least we can probably confirm Josephus’ claim that whoever was at Masada was vanguished. There is simply no other independent source that confirms his account. THerefore it is suspect in the extreme and virtually every serious scholar today believes this. Except you, of course. But you don’t count as a scholar. Whatever Ben Tor claims, he is a biased source because of his background as a Yadin protege. The other archaelogists to whom I refer have no axe to grind in this debate and are far more credible.
Whoa, don’t EVER mischaracterize me or my views. I didn’t villainize him. And don’t you dare use such infammatory language. I criticized him. THat is a totally legitimate enterprise engaged in by scholars for millenia. If that’s goring your ox, I could care less. But just cut that s* out. I don’t have the time for it.
Whatever you thought is not the same as what actually happened. THe theories about when the Tanach (not the Torah as you wrote) was canonized suggest a number of different eras and dates. I chose the one that a number of scholars have proposed as the most likely, and which made the most sense to me.
And Encylopedia Britannica is not more credible as a source than the many I consulted. It’s just one of many theories, as there is no defniitive concrete evidence for any of them.
Top Cat says
Time was, IDF soldiers pledging allegiance to the State of Israel, did so during a moving ceremony atop Masada, where the soldiers vowed that “Masada shall not fall again”, a phrase taken from the poem “Masada” by Y. Lamdan in 1927.
This ceremony at Masada was done away with after retired Israeli General, M. Gichon, turned scholar, and realized that, based on the archeology, it was, politically and militarily speaking, an embarrassing mistake to continue the ceremony.
Subsequently he whole performance was abandoned without fanfare.
Chanukah, we can agree, is a most ancient holiday, timed to coincide with the winter solstice, when after the longest night of the year, life-renewing light reappears.
Relax. The big wheel keeps on turning.
Richard Silverstein says
“Moving?” To whom? To pro-Israel patriots? Yeah. To anyone else? Not so much. Besides how can a ceremony be moving and “embarrassing” at the same time?
I don’t agree with you about anything. So don’t assume I agree with you on this. HOwever old the holiday may be, it has always been a minor holiday. Far below the four festivals in holiness and significance. As a rabbi just recently wrote, all of the Jewish holy days are agricultural, and not religious in origin. Any religious elements were added after the original agricultural rites were codified. In other words, they predated Judaism and became formalized as specifically Jewish during the Biblical era or somewhat before it.
Cut the snark. I don’t need directives from you. Repeat that and you’ll be outa here.
No further comments.
Until reading your comments I hadn’t heard or read about the “Judean forces against a powerful foreign invader” for a long time
All I hear about anymore, and often from “intelligent” people is – the miracle of light lasting for 8 days…
oh, and eating donuts…
but then, what do you expect in a society that Christmas is about spending money for junk that will soon be forgotten