Hanukkah: Time to Supplant the Orthodox Rabbinic Narrative?

by Maskil on February 11, 2009

Andy Ratto (of the Jewish Andy blog) recently posted this interesting item on MetaFilter. “The True Story of Chanukkah” questions just about everything we fondly believe about this holiday.

I thought again how strange it is that – some 250 years since the start of the Enlightenment – even progressive Judaism is still seemingly constrained by the (Orthodox) rabbinic “narrative” when it comes to our celebrations and myths, including those relating to Hanukkah.

Why should this be a problem? These charming versions of pivotal events in our history are great for children. When those versions are challenged, however (either by the outside world or by our own questioning adult minds) we tend to see one of two responses:

  • A withdrawal into fundamentalism and a rejection of any knowledge or methodology that does not square with the tenets of the cult (yes, Jews have cults too).
  • A complete rejection of the entire Jewish anthology as so much “bobbe meises”, suitable only for children and the mentally deficient.

(In real life, the reactions tend not to be so radical. Many manage to somehow reconcile or hold the two versions of the Jewish anthology in balance, or keep their reservations in some private place while continuing to observe outwardly.)

Does a better understanding of the real history of Hanukkah mean we should stop celebrating it? Is Hanukkah still relevant and meaningful for the progressive Jew today? How do we as progressive (or just questioning) Jews maintain continuity, tell our story, celebrate our history and teach the lessons we would like to teach, while respecting knowledge, scholarship and science?

I believe that Hanukkah still belongs on the calendar of progressive Judaism, provided that we can bring both the storyline and the message in synch with scholarship, and with the ethos of progressive Judaism.

The tricky part is to embrace the idea the Judaism does not require a literal acceptance of every word, story or myth transmitted to us by our literature and traditions. This is central to what progressive Judaism is undergoing now, and for as long as our understanding of the universe continues to expand so rapidly, so I won’t go deeper into it here.

The easy part is to update our account of Hanukkah and bring it more or less in line with consensus scholarship, while also updating the moral and other lessons we should draw from the story. This could include the following (phrased as questions):

  • How important is political independence compared to religious freedom? If religious freedom exists (and assuming there is no “existential threat”) what price should we be willing to pay for political freedom? (As we now know, the later, misguided struggle against Rome led to the destruction of the Jewish presence in Eretz Israel and almost 2,000 years of exile.)
  • Is the imposition of a single Judaism worth the price of a civil war? Does monotheism have to be monolithic, or is there room for more than one interpretation of Judaism?
  • Was this actually a setback for Judaism, in that the Temple cult was given a new lease of life, rather than making way for the distributed Judaism of the synagogue?
  • Does religious tolerance apply within Judaism itself, or only in relation to “other” faiths?

Idol worship was at that stage the “red line” that Judaism dared not cross. In that form, idol worship no longer exists, but we could argue that more subtle forms have taken its place. The obsession with the right to settle in Judea, Samaria and Gaza might be seen as one form of idol worship; an obsession that jeopardises the unity of the Jewish people and the existence of the State. Another might be the cultist obsession with ritual observance, to the exclusion of the more subtle (and more difficult) ethical and moral imperatives of Judaism.

Judaism tends to be far more successful when it meets the ideological challenges of the day head on (as it did, very successfully, with Hellenism), rather than turning its back and refusing to engage (as “mainstream” Judaism has done in the age of enlightenment and reason) and retreating into superstition and ritual. Judaism did not stand back for or retreat from Hellenism, but learned what it could and became that much stronger for it.

Let’s continue to celebrate Hanukkah, and the rest of our splendid holy days and festivals. Let’s not, however, continue to be enslaved to the Orthodox rabbinic narrative, except where it adds value to progressive Judaism.

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