"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, November 24, 2005

From Thanksgiving To Chanukah

Here is the ultimate moment for a practicing author/editor who works mostly on projects that do not bear his name. That is, when he can publish a review on the very book he edited. Here is such a review, headed for publication in a prominent Jewish magazine:

A sort of orthodoxy of superficiality has long predominated in the public perception of Chanukah.

The narrative is simple enough: bad Greeks came and tried to stop Jews from being Jewish until a small heroic army known as the Maccabees fought back and won against overwhelming odds. They then entered the Temple in Jerusalem to restore Jewish sovereignty. There they found that the supplies had been raided and damaged by the Greeks to the point where there was not even oil with which to light the candelabra. They first thought it would be necessary to wait eight days until a delegation could travel to the olive-producing region, prepare new oil and return. Suddenly they managed to find a tiny flask that contained one day’s oil. They decided to light it, if only as a symbolic gesture for that day’s victory. Instead, the oil burned for eight solid days, which they took to be a miracle. We celebrate the victory by being happy and having parties with special foods; we celebrate the miracle of the lights by lighting candles.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a winter holiday, practiced at home after a full day’s work, would tend to drift toward the boisterous and rambunctious and away from the analytical and intellectual. And arguably the Jewish People has benefited from this shallowness: more Jews observe Chanukah than any other holiday and it has a wonderful effect of affirming a sense of positive Jewish identity. But now, in our era of unparalleled renaissance of Jewish scholarship, that will simply not do anymore. As Patrick Henry might say were he alive today: ‘Give me liberty and give me depth’.

Pinchos Stolper has undertaken to fill this void with his newest tour-de-force, HIDDEN LIGHTS: Chanukah and the Jewish/Greek Conflict. (Full disclosure: I worked as an editor on the project.) This is a book whose target is truth, no matter how many feathers get ruffled in the process.

Some ruffling may be inevitable. There are some very powerful historical premises that may be uncomfortable for people to face. Firstly, he makes the claim that the majority of Jews had given up the practice of Judaism in favor of the Greek lifestyle. Contemporaneous historical sources are cited to support that contention, then he follows up by proving that many recent scholars, such as Rabbi Jacob Kamenecki and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, believed this to be the case. He also maintains that Rabbi Isaac Hutner seems to share that view, although Rabbi Hutner’s language on the subject is less than explicit.

Stolper even considers the far more shocking view that most of the oppression enacted against Jews during that period was the work of Hellenized Jews rather than the Greeks themselves. Once again, he quotes both Rabbi Kamenecki and Rabbi Soloveitchik at some length to establish that they held this opinion. In fact, they seem to believe that most of the Al Hanissim prayer recited on Chanukah is referring to victories achieved by the Jews against the Jews, and when they are celebrated as victories against the “evil Greek Kingdom” this is intended as a euphemism for turncoat Jewish Hellenists.

However, it is clear that Rabbi Hutner never accepts that conclusion: to him, the “Greek Exile” and the “Greek Redemption” are too bound up in the national history of the Jews struggling against the Four Kingdoms. The concept of the Four Kingdoms imposing Four Exiles is ubiquitous in the Midrash and to a thinker like Rabbi Hutner it is inconceivable to assert that the Hellenists made the exile happen. No, the Greeks made it happen and the Hellenists were their agents, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily, sometimes eagerly and sometimes regretfully. Still, the presence of Jews in a significant role as proxies of the oppressor is treated in Rabbi Hutner’s work as a very important aspect of the theology of the Greek challenge to Israel.

Stolper is never more incisive than when he follows the trails laid out by Rabbi Hutner’s philosophical discourses. (It is noteworthy that Hidden Lights is being published simultaneously with Chanukah In a New Light, Stolper’s translation of the Pachad Yitzchok on Chanukah. This is the second in a series of translations by Stolper of Rabbi Hutner’s set of Pachad Yitzchok, volumes of theological/philosophical essays on the Jewish holidays.)

Probably the most significant premise laid out in Rabbi Hutner’s work on Chanukah, which he attributes to the Maharal of Prague, is that the physical conflict against the Greeks is secondary to the spiritual conflict. Or, more specifically, the intellectual conflict. The Jews are seen as the first people who created a complete system for living based on a set of intellectual principles. Although the Torah adds some elements of faith that go beyond the intellect, its foundation is set in reason. First the independent reason of Abraham, then the revealed reason of prophecy and ultimately the revealed reason of Torah at Sinai. The Greeks, as the first nation to found a national culture built around an independent system of reasoned principles – or at least facts derived through scientific investigation – become unalterably opposed to the idea that Torah constitutes a higher form of reason designed to connect the mind of man to the mind of God.

This sets up a new paradigm for conflict. Rather than wars designed for building power and wealth per se, we have wars to promote ideology and alter cultures. The Greeks are actually exporting a lifestyle, which they are delivering from the barrel of a gun – or the blade of a sword, as the case may be. Every other nation in the world, when Alexander of Macedonia comes sweeping through to establish dominion, finds that the physical requirements are very liberal. The conquest is not about slavery and taxation but about creating a universal lifestyle, moving civilizations and economies forward from the primitive to the sophisticated; from the mundane to the mondaine. Realizing this, the cultures of the occupied nations prove to be tractable and accommodating. Only the Jew fights back.

Thus the ultimate test of the Greek intellectual system, culture and lifestyle is their ability to compete with their Jewish counterparts. The initial foray to achieve cultural dominion involved the physical invasion of the land of Israel and a cultural outreach effort which seduced many Jews into subordinating themselves to that culture: this movement of Jews produced the Hellenists. Not satisfied with the results of this hard-fight soft-sell two-step, the Greeks (often with the enthusiastic support of their Jewish fellow travelers) laid it all on the line by initiating laws forbidding the study of Torah and the performance of various key Mitzvos.

The happy ending was provided by the Maccabees deciding that enough was enough and undertaking a campaign of guerilla warfare that ultimately enabled the Torah-observant Jews to regain control of the centers of political power and culture. This vision of the primary war as intellectual/cultural and the secondary war as military infuses this book with a rich texture. The military details are very well-covered, too. The result is a multi-tiered appreciation of Chanukah as something with more resonance than a crisp latke and more nuance than a spinning dreidel.


And to the question, "Did I edit the companion volume of translations as well?", the answer is "Yes". And I can tell you all this because the author/translator chose to acknowledge my work. The choice was his, however; had he preferred to hide my role I would have to remain mum.

10 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

You know, Jay, I just wondered whether you choose to write in an eccentric word-game style (which is undoubtedly clever) in order to create separation between what you ghost-write and what you write. Because you do so much language-chopping in your personal stuff, it would be nearly impossible to do the kind of author matching that revealed Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Sounds good to me.

connie deady said...

Thanks very much for posting that Jay. I consider myself well-educated, and I had never read any of this aspect of history before. I did not know, shamefully, the history of Chanukah. Can you give me the time period for this?

What is fascinating to me is how being educated as a Christian, the emphasis historically is placed on the Roman dominian over the Jewish people.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Here is the timeline according to the tradition (there are teeny quibbles among historians).

1312 B.C.E. - Jews leave Egypt.

1272 B.C.E. - They arrive in Israel.

832 B.C.E. - Solomon builds First Temple.

422 B.C.E. - Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

352 B.C.E. - Ezra and Nehemiah build Second Temple, but Israel (Judea) is client state of Persia.

247 B.C.E. - Decline of Persia leaves Israel independent.

142 B.C.E. - Greece takes control of Israel.

62 B.C.E. - Maccabee Revolt leaves Greek suzerainty of Israel much weakened. Jews regain control of Temple and reestablish monarchy for first time in 300 years, but wars against various Greek generals continue sporadically.

37 B.C.E. - Romans take over Israel (mostly by Jewish request) and push out Greeks. The kingdom and Temple still operate.

68 A.D. - Romans destroy the Temple when they see the Jews as becoming too rebellious.

Tom Van Dyke said...

How'd that "A.D." slip in there? ;-)

Hunter Baker said...

He's coming out of the closet. The conspiracy is growing!

Hunter Baker said...

Funny story about the BC/AD thing. A Jewish prof told us he heard a Gentile colleage being asked about the BCE/BC stuff. The Gentile prof. told the questioner, "Oh, that's easy. It's Before Christian Era and Christian Era."

We had a good laugh over that one.

We can change the nomenclature, but the date is the date. And it stands for what it stands for.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Jews say it stands for Agreed Dating and Before Common Era.

Ittay said...

Isn't AD After the Death of Jesus. Both Jews and christians belive Jesus died at around that time. I guess the issue for us Jews, is that we don't believe he is the messiah, thefore, we don't need to restart the calander from scratch to acknowledge his life.

Kathy Hutchins said...

AD = After Death. I like it!

The problem with your theory is that the counter gets set to zero at the Nativity, not the Crucifixion. It actually stands for Anno Domini (The Year of Our Lord). I think that would ruffle more Jewish feathers than After Death.