Andrew Greene (530nm330hz) wrote,
Andrew Greene

Hanukah in a post-9/11 world

Back in college, I thought I was tremendously clever one year when I sent out hand-calligraphed cards that read: "May the holiday season fill your soul with the spirit of bloody guerrilla warfare against the forces of religious homogenization."

My goal was to emphasize the dual irony that, while Chanukah celebrates a military victory against those who would strip us of our Jewishness, many people lump it in with the Christmas message of "Peace on Earth".

I don't think we can joke about that irony any more. The events of the past decade have reminded us of how easy it is for people to delude themselves into thinking that God wants them to kill.

The Chanukah narrative is different, of course, in that the Hasmoneans fought to repel an invading army. Church and state were one, and the Selucids' defilement of the Temple and banning of Jewish practice was as much a political power play as a violation of conscience. On the other side, the Maccabees were not fighting for religious freedom as a principle, they were fighting for their religious and national identity to be restored as the established faith. When they regained power, idolatry was once again a crime in Israel. The rebellion began, after all, with Matityahu the priest killing not a Selucid soldier, but a fellow Jew who was sacrificing a pig on the altar at the Selucid soldier's command.

Just as most American colonists in the 1770s really didn't care about the British injustices (at first), and even many of those who did weren't interested in a war to throw off the British yoke, most Jews of the second century BCE were happy to Hellenize because of the opportunities for economic and social advancement that it offered. Even those who opposed it were disinclined to a militant uprising. What, aside from a belief that it was God's will, gave Matityahu and his sons the justification for starting a rebellion? It certainly wasn't popular support; not at first, anyway.

I often think of that anonymous Jew. If I were in that situation, where a soldier would kill me unless I commit one of the "big three" sins (which one is not supposed to transgress even on pain of death), would I have the courage of my convictions to allow myself to be killed? I don't think I could. What does that say about me? (And in the end, that poor fellow would have died either way.)

And I think about Matityahu. If I can't bring myself to face my own death in the name of what I believe, I certainly couldn't kill another human being for that. Yet Matityahu could, and did, and the tradition lauds him for it.

It's not the multi-year war against the Selucid army that gives me pause, it's the act that started it. Like Pinchas, Matityahu was "jealous for the Lord" and took vigilante justice. Pinchas was rewarded by God with a "brit shalom", a covenant of peace --- but his was a "shalom" written with a broken vav, a peace that is somehow deficient. Matityahu didn't even get the reward of peace; he did not survive the rebellion, and several of his sons were killed.

In our day, can we look upon Matityahu as a hero? That troubles me. I believe in God; I believe that Judaism is true; yet I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that Matityahu's action was defensible. How many steps is it between stabbing that anonymous Jew to stop him from defiling a bamah altar, and flying an airplane into the World Trade Center? More than one, but perhaps not too many more.

And so we walk a tightrope. On the one hand, Chanukah is essentially about maintaining our distinct religious identity, and not being "like everyone else" --- not by force, and not by persuasion. But there are dangers in letting that strong religious identity turn into such certainty in our faith that we would sacrifice others for it.
Tags: "what i believe", judaism
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