Chanukah --  2009


 Excerpts from My Glorious Brothers by Howard Fast [1948]

The Chanukah story is found in the Apocrypha, Josephus and the Talmud.  The historical novel by Fast can be viewed as a Midrash giving a particular point of view on the Chanukah story in these three texts.  Fast is both true to the texts and gives interesting interpretations of the story. 

The quotes beginning each segment are the voice of Simon, the last survivor (died 135 BCE) and ruler of the five sons of Mattathias who began the revolt in 167 BCE.

1.         I can still hear the voice of my father, the Adon, saying:

On three things life rests:

(i) On right, which is set forth in the Law;

(ii) On truth, which is set forth in the world;

(iii) And on the love of one man for another, which is set forth in your heart.                 

How does this Maccabeean framework compare with the Rabbinical view in Avot 1:2, the saying of Simon the Just (around 300 BCE) that

On three things does the world stand:

(i) On Torah; (ii) On Worship; and (iii) On Deeds of Lovingkindness. 

Avot 1:2 stresses the three major duties a person must undertake in daily activities: Study, Prayer (formerly sacrifice) and caring for neighbors.  These correspond to relationships: What God gave to us; What we give to God; and What humans give to humans.

The Maccabeean creed concerns components of an individual: What one received from God (Text); What one learns from the world (Experience); and one's inner intentions and orientation in interacting with other people.  These three can be viewed as a sequence, from starting point to impact on the human world: Learning from the Past, Learning from the Present, and Doing.  God is more present in Avot.

Equalities: (i) Law and Torah and (iii) are essentially the same. 

Tension between (i) and (ii): For the Maccabees, Truth is gained from Experience, not the Law/Text.  This is different from the Rabbis, who seek Truth from the Text.  The Maccabees have more of a balance between God's Text and human Experience; and Truth is in the latter.

 

 2.         A legate from Rome...came to me this day...and said: "There are men in Rome...but there are no Maccabees.  So the Senate gave me a writ and ordered me to go to the land where the Maccabee rules...and give him my hand, which is Rome's hand...."

"I don't rule," I said.  "A Jew has no ruler, no king."

...."Yet you had kings, as I recall," the Roman said.

"We had them, and they were like a poison to us.  We destroyed them or they destroyed us."  [page 4]

Why do Jews have antipathy toward the king?

Kings have proven to be corrupt - they don't adhere to Torah, and serve themselves rather than the people.  Deu 17 came true.

As Gideon said: I shall not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; Adonai shall rule over you. [Judges 8:23]

Disrespect for the boss is a Jewish trait, different from Gentiles as contrasted by comedian Jackie Mason.

How does Simon respond to the Roman's offer of friendship?

He cleverly deflects the Roman's offer by focusing on kingship.

 

3.         Never in my life have I known or seen a man like my father, Mattathias; my earliest pictures of God substituted him.  Mattathias was Adon, God was Adonai; I grouped them together; and sometimes, may God forgive me, I still do.  [page 17]

What makes the Maccabee rebellion different from other Jewish rebellions such as against ancient Egypt in the Book of Exodus, or against Rome?

The Maccabee Saga is about a Family.  It is reminiscent of the Patriarch stories of Genesis, regressing from the  evolving story of the people Israel.  This family dominates and rules the people for decades.

This rebellion required timely leadersip from one family - first the zealot Mattathias, then the warrior Judah, then steadfast Simon.   

What can we recall about idol-izing our own parents as gods?  When did we lose this innocent childhood view?

Most of us awoke to parents' imperfections in early childhood.  Simon never outgrows his need to view his father as akin to God.

 

4.         We were a conquered people...under the heel of the Macedonian, subject and abject, allowed to live in peace as long as we did not mar the peace.  They didn't want us for slaves; there is a saying among the Gentiles, "Take a Jew for a slave and he'll be your master yet," but they wanted our wealth....So they taxed us and milked us and robbed us, but left us, at least for the time being, an illusion of tranquility and liberty.  [page 18]

Is this a fair encapsulation of much of Jewish history?

Yes.  Jews have been valued for their ability to make ruling Gentiles wealthy, and fleeced in return for fragile freedom and peace.

Do Gentiles still fear the power of Jews, even of low status?

Jews are always "other" in the eyes of some Gentiles.  Jewish tradition and the fact of Jewish survival may seem frightfully potent.

Is this true today?  Haven't many of us sometimes felt that we are valued for what we produce but are not viewed as equal to Gentiles in spirituality, or our status in the Next World (or This World)?

 

5.         ...We were slaves in Egypt; and for all time to come, through our children's time and their children's, we will not forget that; and we will bend our knee to no man and not even to God....And with what other people is it said, as we say, that resistance to tyranny is the truest obedience to God?  [page 171]

What different spin do the Maccabees put on "We were slaves in Egypt"?

That slavery is usually recalled as (a) the trigger for God being our Redeemer, leading to the Covenant [1st Commandment] between God and Israel and Revelation; and (b) compelling our compassion to others who are oppressed. 

The Maccabees recall it in the sense of Never Again (will we be slaves, rather than be condemned to deathcamps); Jews must act to stop another people from taking their freedom (even at the cost of life).  It is more about the value of freedom than God's redemption.

How do the Maccabees view God?  As their King?

Yes.  A king who values most the ideal of freedom.  This paradoxically could evolve into freedom from subserviency to God.  God is like a fierce and loving parent, wanting Jews to love freedom and eventually become independent of the parent, retaining love and respect for Him.  Parents are supposed to give children three things: Roots, Wings and Love.

Is the superlative ("truest obedience") an overstatement?  

No.  Greeks were tyrants (Antiochus is a Syrian under Greece).  They prohibited Jews from practicing Circumcision, Shabbat, and the Calendar for Holidays - effectively depriving them of doing the most important mitzvot.  No mitzvot = no Judaism.

Irony: The freedom-fighting Maccabees became tyrants over less observant Jews.  (Like New England Pilgrims or the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution.)  A question of fundamental values and where to draw boundaries: At the extremes, Hillel v. Shammai division is for the sake of Heaven and OK; Jews for Jesus is heretical and unacceptable.

 

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