A Different Hanukkah Story
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media's midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Happy Hanukkah. This week we celebrate Judaism's eight-day Festival of Lights marking one of God's lesser miracles involving lamp oil and faith. Because holidays are times of nostalgia, I decided to offer a snippet of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to kick us down memory lane.
JON STEWART It’s the most wonderful time of year.
STEPHEN COLBERT When's it start?
JON STEWART On the 25th.
STEPHEN COLBERT Of December?
JON STEWART Kislev.
STEPHEN COLBERT Which is when exactly?
JON STEWART …I will check.
STEPHEN COLBERT Are there presents?
JON STEWART Yes, indeed, 8 days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
STEPHEN COLBERT Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy, a king who came to save the world?
JON STEWART No oil that burned quite slowly.
STEPHEN COLBERT Well, it sounds fantastic.
JON STEWART There's more.
STEPHEN COLBERT We have latkes.
JON STEWART What are they?
STEPHEN COLBERT Potato pancakes.
JON STEWART We have dreidels.
STEPHEN COLBERT What are they?
JON STEWART Woodentops. We have candles.
STEPHEN COLBERT What are they?
JON STEWART They are candles. When we light them, oh, the fun, it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yes, this relatively newish Jewish holiday serves as Michael David Lucas described in The New York Times as the Semitic sidekick to Christmas. The Hanukkah story begins in Greek-controlled Palestine over 2000 years ago when Jews enjoyed religious freedom until a new ruler, the Assyrian Greek king Antiochus took power as memorialized in the much-beloved 1996 Rugrats Hanukkah special.
SPEAKER 1 From now on King Antiochus says, "You have to wear what he wears and read what he reads. You also have to worship his Gods."
SPEAKER 2 Some people thought this new way of life was fine, but others didn't.
SPEAKER 3 If that new king catches us with our old books, we're going to get in a lot of trouble.
SPEAKER 4 I don't care. These are the books our forefathers read and our five fathers and our six fathers, and I'm not stopping now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Juda, or Yehuda, and his small band of followers, the Maccabees, defeated Antiochus. After the war, under the command of Judah's priestly family, the Hasmoneans, the Jews found the holy temple of Jerusalem in ruins. The temple lamp with just enough oil to burn for a single day.
SPEAKER 5 One day went by and then another and another until finally the eight days had passed and the flame was still burning. To this day we light the menorah every year to remember the miracle of Hanukkah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the popular Hanukkah narrative passed down through cartoons and kindergarten classes whenever Jewish kids feel at risk of feeling left out at Christmas. This holiday has a contentious past. When we spoke to Rabbi James Ponet back in 2018, he said that Hanukkah was censored for millennia because the story exposed the deep divisions within the Jewish community. That and the Hanukkah miracle, he says, were undercut when the Jewish people lost their land yet again after Hasmonean infighting.
RABBI JAMES PONET In some sense, the question is, what's the miracle here? Is it oil that burned for eight days, or is it that for a brief period of time in the midst of a couple hundred years in which the Jews were without political control of the land in which they lived, they achieved a political autonomy? It ended badly. The Hasmonean dynasty crumbles in a second civil war, but it happened. This is the most complex and adult of our holidays.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wait, I thought it was like Trix, it's for kids.
RABBI JAMES PONET Exactly. When we confront something that's completely beyond our ability to explain even to ourselves, we give it to the children. As is often the case, in Mother Goose and nursery rhymes, we drum out the terror and we bring in obfuscation. This is a story that covers over a deeper and ongoing story of a civil war. The nature of civil war, then and now, is that once it happens it never stops.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Juda of the Maccabees was a fundamentalist but his principal fight was with the Assyrians, was it not?
RABBI JAMES PONET Well, he came from the priestly family. The priests, we're talking 165 B.C., were divided among themselves. There were those who wished to blend in, who thought that the uniqueness of Judaic practices could be abandoned. There were others, and this was Judah and his family, that were committed to maintaining the traditions that went back to the Bible. It was a fight among priests and it was, therefore, a fight among Jews. The nation has a will to live separate and the will to be part of something larger. We see this as part of the history of humanity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This holiday may have been incorporated into a kind of Independence Day for a dynasty that lasted about 80 years, the Hasmonean dynasty. Then it was pretty much hushed up. It's not actually in the bible, right? It's part of the Apocrypha, and not generally where we find our holidays.
RABBI JAMES PONET Exactly. Already in the third century, second-third century, the rabbis who formed the Talmud determined that the books of Maccabees would not be included in the Bible. In fact, we don't have any of them even in Hebrew left. Why? Because these books stirred up a memory of political revolt that cost the Jewish people terribly. The rabbis couldn't drown completely the collective memory, but they could reshape it. The miracle is not in the Books of Maccabees. The miracle of oil that burned was a creation of the Talmudic rabbis.
The Talmud was written in the aftermath of political and military and diplomatic failure. Now, my feeling is they wanted to bury the story. It didn't serve the interests of the Jewish people. It was really until 1948 we were living, still, with the sense that we couldn't be a nation-state until the Messiah came. Hanukkah is an attempt to reshape the memory of the war of Jew against Jew, as well as a war of Jews against a foreign oppressor. Let's refocus it on the temple and on a miracle that happened in the temple.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was the Talmudic scholars who reshaped it that way. If you go back to the Books of the Maccabees, they do tell us about the Jewish civil war. Here's a quote from it. "There were some evil-doers in Israel who tried to win popularity for a policy of integration with the surrounding nations. It was because the Jews had kept themselves aloof for so long, they claimed, that so many hardships had befallen them. They applied to Antiochus who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life. They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised." Ouch.
RABBI JAMES PONET Exactly. What a stunning example of the radical capacity of the Jewish people, then and now, to will itself out of separateness, out of particularity, out of the burden of being a small embattled nation into a larger participation of the superglobal culture of the day. We're still caught in that struggle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You co-officiated Chelsea Clinton's interfaith wedding in 2010. Interfaith ceremonies are probably the most controversially assimilative thing that a rabbi could do.
RABBI JAMES PONET That's correct. I think of myself as, in some way, embodying every way there is of being a Jew today. Some Jews are atheists. I know the atheist in myself. Some Jews are ultra-orthodox, Haredim. I know the Haredi Jew in me. I believe in the reality of the Jewish people that is at war, in many ways, against itself but I embrace every aspect of it in an attempt to live within the war zone without going fully to war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Getting back to the political evolution of the holiday, it was rediscovered in modern times to enable Jewish kids not to feel left out during the season but it was also embraced by the Zionists and proto-Zionists.
RABBI JAMES PONET Yes. The image of the Jew as a military figure is absolutely critical to the standing and stability of the state of Israel. As a matter of fact, that the tactics that Moshe Dayan deployed in the '67 war, the Six-Day War, actually benefited from a reading of the tactics used by the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans against the Seleucidian Greek armies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it fair to say that Hanukkah feels a bit more urgent lately?
RABBI JAMES PONET It is our most urgent holiday because it's the holiday of the will to power and the dangers of power. It is a holiday that is both a call to arms and a warning about what arms can bring about. It's all there. The Jews of the diaspora are choosing not to be fully part of the political exercise of power in Israel today. That allows them to articulate the Jewish voice of moral vision. Why we're in the world while many of the Jews living in the state of Israel today pay the price of being a Jewish national entity in the world. It's part of the secret, I think, of who we are that we live both in this state and outside of this state. What happened in Pittsburgh-
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was the synagogue shooting in October. Some might see that as a sign that we're vulnerable, we have to take arms, we have to leave America and go to Israel. Then others who say, "Hey, look, we're not alone. We got solidarity."
RABBI JAMES PONET You're right. There were allies. There were Muslims, Blacks, and others that ran to our aid, and there were policemen who were on our side. It wasn't a pogrom, although some Jews in the United States experienced it that way. The media leaned it that way, a pogrom. Yet, it was a tragic invasion of innocent people, and now synagogues in America will be ringed with police, I imagine, for quite some time. The right-wing in Israel believes that we are terribly vulnerable. We could be destroyed, God forbid, at any time. The left-wing believes we are completely insensitive to the moral blindness that motivates us, and that we are strong enough to make major sacrifices so that we can bring about peace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How would you prefer we celebrate Hanukkah?
RABBI JAMES PONET I think it needs to be opened up to the most serious kind of discussion such as you and I are having today. What does it mean to be a Jew in the world? The miracle of Hanukkah is that the Jews returned to the world. They didn't just leave it. There was an attempt then, and there have been repeated attempts to remove the Jews from the world. There's a miraculous sense that a people that was doomed recreated its old language, has taken political control of its own land, and is now in the deeply ambiguous and sometimes very ugly and brutal moral frontier of being a nation-state in an age where the nation-state is itself as a system facing a possible extinction and, greater than that, the larger possible extinction, God forbid, of a whole species as we look at universal issues that we, Jews, need to address. That complexity is what Hanukkah is about, who we are.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You would love it if we would celebrate Hanukkah asking those questions, but absent those questions, would we be better off without it?
RABBI JAMES PONET I don't think so, because-- [laughs]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the kids would get depressed.
RABBI JAMES PONET The kids would get depressed. We would be diminished without that memory. It's like saying if we could redo Jewish history so that World War II didn't happen, wouldn't you do that? Doing that would be like attempting to turn life into a fairytale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Much of the Bible is a fairytale.
RABBI JAMES PONET Either it's a fairytale or it is some kind of a deep expression of something going on in the Jewish imagination that is alive and well. Still, it's hard to be a human being. Therefore, it's hard to be a Jewish. Schwer zu sein ein a yid. I wouldn't give it up. I would keep it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [laughs] A Jew invented the term the melting pot?
RABBI JAMES PONET Yes, Israel Zangwill created that term, the melting pot, which was then taken over in the United States. This goes back, of course, to again a Jewish war between, say, the prophet Isaiah, who saw that the vision of the end of time, aḥarit ha-yamim, would be that all nations would come to Jerusalem, that the norm of humanity would be Jerusalem, over against Micah, who saw that each nation would have its own God, but both of them felt that either through a universal standardization or through a pluralism, there would come about an era where nation would not lift up sword against nation. They yearned for and believed that peace could come, but they were prepared to live in the pre-utopian world. That seems to me the art of being a Jew, somehow finding a way to live in the world even as you are at war against it and against yourself. That strikes me as the stuff of this holiday, so I wouldn't get rid of it, not at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rabbi James Ponet is the Emeritus Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale University and the author of the Slate piece, titled Hanukkah as Jewish Civil War.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thanks for checking out the midweek podcast. The big show will be hosted on Friday, it's usually around dinnertime. I don't know, just thanks.