Sunday, December 06, 2015

The trouble with Hanukkah?

by Gary Berg-Cross

A search of "war on Christmas" 2015 in the News yields 60,000+ hits so it quite a topic. Starbucks red cups along generates over 6,000 of this with articles asking, Is Starbucks brewing a 'War On Christmas'?

"This week, Starbucks unveiled new cups for the holiday season, which are solid red with the green Starbucks logo in the middle, with no candy canes, reindeer, or snowmen." 

Not hitting the iconic symbols for Christmas seems passive aggressive to some. It denies easy access to manufactured customs. Many of us know the story of how older customs were captured by Christmas and memed over to serve religious needs. With a good deal of humor, Tom Flynn's book The Trouble with Christmas puts Santa Claus, his reindeer, Christmas trees and cards, exchanging presents and the spectrum of diverse elements of the Christmas tradition in historical context . Given this context and and an increasingly secular society Flynn argues for the downsizing of Christmas as a national holiday given the diverse nature of America's population. You can see his video on this, 
The Trouble book came out in 1993, but he might have a chance for a sequel as fact checking has gotten around to challenging some of the myths around the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (H-party) too.

The Washington Post and other papers ran a simple 5 myth list associated with the big H-holiday (Jennifer Bleyer: 5 myths about Hanukkah).

The WaPo fact list sometimes gets fact checked itself but at least this author consulted seemingly experts on the topic. The five myths discussed were:

1. Hanukkah is an important Jewish holiday.
Well many of us know that Israelis who visit at this time of year can be surprised at how but the H party is in the US.  In Israel it is a minor celebration.
Why the difference?  As with the C-party it is part of a culurally manufactured event. Bleyer's article explanation I see as illustration a general phenomena of how religion and group identity mix, to solve the problems of assimilation using a cathexing celebration:

"... hubbub around Hanukkah is (not) accidental. Its elevation to its current status in the United States goes back to the 19th century, when rabbis concerned about Jewish children feeling envious of their Christian neighbors realized that Hanukkah could let kids indulge in a joyous occasion around the same time of year. As Jewish historian Dianne Ashton recounts in her book "Hanukkah in America," the holiday's "timing in the midst of the Christmas season offered a way [for people] to perform their Jewish commitment through the holiday's rite and, for a moment, to resolve the ambiguity of being an American Jew."

2. Hanukkah celebrates a fight for religious freedom.

This one was new to me. The conventional understanding was that Jews celebrate traditional Jewish practices, which when threaten lead to an uprising of "a family of country priests called the Maccabees."  They are considered heroes (not zealots). They are associated with freedom and control of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and "rededicated it according to their beliefs." 

But who were day and what were their values really?  The real history (ala Woodrow Wilson)  is more complicated, as history often is - think of the real Pilgrim-Indian story for example compared to the story that children used to hear in school.  These are often folk history stories hiding civil wars and such where words like "freedom" are hurled about as casually as in contemporary political campaigns.

"...The idea that theirs was a fight for religious freedom is a myth, as is the notion that their revolt was exclusively against their Gentile oppressors. At the time, many Jews readily welcomed aspects of the dominant Greek culture, with its emphasis on reason, wisdom and art. These Hellenistic Jews advocated for the reformation of their own primitive belief system according to Greek values - the modernization of a faith founded in the Bronze Age. The Maccabees opposed their Hellenized counterparts, and according to some scholars, their revolt really began as a bitter internal fight between religious fundamentalists and reformers.
"The Maccabees were fighting for the ability to observe their own laws and the ability to coerce other Jews to observe their laws," says Albert Baumgarten, an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. "It meant a very strong fight against the Hellenistic Jews and the establishment of what we would today call a theocratic state." Some contemporary commentators have even deigned to call the Maccabees fanatics and zealots.
3. The Jews' victory in the Hanukkah story halted assimilation.
No, it turns out that the lesson is one of compromising and practical politics.  In this case with the accursed Greek ideas such as democracy that we now respect a bit more in the West.
" rulers who subsequently established the Hasmonean dynasty, these rebels quickly realized that their survival involved playing the game of regional politics -- and the way to do that was by none other than adopting Hellenism. "It was a kind of necessity," Baumgarten says. "The Seleucid dynasty to which Antiochus and his successors belonged was split between two rival families that were fighting each other over generations, and the Maccabees had to play one branch off each other.
If you backed the wrong horse in this ongoing civil war, you could end up losing your status and your head. . . . So although the Maccabees started as opponents of Hellenism, they soon become among its most enthusiastic admirers and adopters."
This meant, for instance, aping Greek models of government and negotiation, and establishing an assembly to vote a ruler into power -- a practice with no precedent in Jewish tradition. Their realpolitik also helped them learn to "negotiate the different tensions between being part of the Jewish world and the larger world," Baumgarten says, which was critical to Jewish survival."
4. The oil burned for eight days and eight nights.
Here we have the miracle part from dim history.  But, oh wow, it isn't even in the old Jewish Bible stories!  A made up miracle story? This is a bit like attacking the virgin birth and Santa Claus. 
"..As scholars have long noted, there's no reference to the miracle in early sources based on firsthand accounts, including the first book of Maccabees, an insider history written to glorify the new dynasty and its achievements, nor the second book of Maccabees, also a historical account written close to the time of the revolt, although from the diaspora.
The miraculous-oil story seems to be a rabbinic invention transmitted hundreds of years after it allegedly occurred. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jews were expelled, and religious authority was transferred from Temple priests to diaspora rabbis, who came to codify the Babylonian Talmud as a central text of Jewish law, ethics and customs. In the middle of the Talmudic tractate discussing the proper way to light candles on the Sabbath, as a footnote that seems almost an afterthought, the rabbis included a discussion of Hanukkah candle-lighting along with a telling of the miracle of the oil. It's this written account that made the story last." 
5. Latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food.
"Latkes originated in Eastern Europe, not ancient Israel. And they were first made with curd cheese rather than potatoes, Gil Marks writes in the 'Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.' Although they are certainly a traditional holiday food, they are by no means the traditional holiday food."

Sort of like the bagel.  Things get acquired along the way and incorporated in to evolving tradition.  

It's not a problem unless you think some part of this is the eternal word of God working his dietary magic with a chosen group of people in a 13+ billion year old universe with quite a special locations in that cosmos.
All of this myth busting may be a little too politically incorrect for some H-celebrations, but it is also nice to know the history of how things came to be and the factors that influence group belief.

Perhaps that pleasant humbugging critic, Tom Flynn will have something to say here.  He is speaking at the next WASH MDC meeting Saturday, 
December 12, 20153:15 PM to 5:30 PM (Wheaton Library).

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