The Corner

Hanukkah and Hitchens

Goodness me, why all the worry about Christopher Hitchens and Hanukkah? He’s a militant atheist, and thus he’s very interested in the topic of God. You might agree or disagree with what he says, and how he says it (to no small extent, I do), but he is no more “obsessed” (to borrow a description used earlier on this Corner) by the Man Upstairs than are many devout believers.

Turning to what ’really’ happened over two millennia ago, here’s a possibly useful explanation from a year or two back, written by a Rabbi at Yale.

Read in its historical context, however, the Hanukkah story is really about a revolt against the Hellenized Jews who had fallen madly in love with the sophisticated, globalizing superculture of their day. The Apocrypha’s texts make it clear that the battle against Hellenization was in fact a kulturkampf among the Jews themselves…In Judea, then, there were Jews choosing to die rather than publicly profane Jewish law—and there were Jews risking death to free themselves from the parochial constraints of that law. The historic Jewish passion to merge and disappear confronted the attested Jewish will to stand apart and persist. That’s the clash of Hanukkah. Armed Hasmonean priests and their comrades from the rural town of Modi’in attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek reform…The Hasmoneans imposed, at sword’s edge, traditional observance. After years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule. So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew.

Fascinating. The whole thing is well worth reading. As a description, however, of what Hanukkah means today the ancient historical background is, surely, of only limited relevance. What matters is that this festival has evolved into a benign celebration of faith, family and tradition. And if some of what is being celebrated is of limited historical accuracy, so what? Similarly, the fact that most of the lovely paraphernalia of Christmas is, historically speaking, of highly dubious authenticity doesn’t matter in the slightest. That’s simply not what it’s ‘about’. So Happy Hannukkah, Merry Christmas, bring on the latkes and serve the mince pies…


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