If The Whole World Celebrated Chanukah, The World Would be Less Worldly

In these unsettled times the light of Chanukah has shinned on those who have observed it, and even more brightly on those who understand it. The whole world needs a strong and meaningful mid-winter celebration, and as we all know, there is one particular celebration which is the clear favorite…and it isn’t Chanukah. Even among the Jewish people the mid-winter fest has frequently taken on the trappings of a frivolous round of enjoyment, since even the observant seldom understand the full “meaning of Chanukah.” And if that be the case with Jews, what hope is there for the world, or that Chanukah might obtain some universal significance?

First of all, there is the seemingly parochial narrative of the Chanukah story itself. Some time around the year 167BCE a small band of determined Jewish revolutionaries, led by the Maccabee family, overthrow a mighty Greek empire, cleanse the Temple of pagan artifacts, rededicate it to the Almighty, and watch as Temple lamps burn for a week longer than would seem humanly possible. The episode with the lamps is the first thing that usually comes to mind, and all else is considered prologue. Superficially, that prologue resembles the one-sided account of some minor conflict between tribes in the tumultuous Middle East, reported at second or third hand and embellished with the usual legendary encrustations. It is hard to see this as an incident of universal import.

Yet Chanukah indeed has a meaning which transcends the particulars of time and place, but only when understood according to its spirit. To begin with, like all things at the level of the spirit, the facts of history are but proxies for archetypal realities. At such a level it is not a matter of Greeks and Jews, but of secularists and those who reject secularism. 2nd century BCE Judea saw not so much an inter-ethnic conflict as an intra-ethnic conflict between the friends of the emperor and the friends of God. That time around, the friends of God won, which was the real miracle.

Yet if the conflict was ideological, not ethnic, how are we to pick sides? What is so wrong with secularism that a discerning human being should be a fanatical anti-secularist? Were not secularism, the scientific enlightenment, and the movement for representative democracy united in the West during the 18th century to endow the world with what economist-philosopher F. A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty.” In siding with the anti-secularists are we throwing Moses Mendelson and Lessing under the bus? Are we throwing Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state under the bus? Are we throwing liberalism itself under the bus? Hardly! Unlike the philosophers of the 18th century we now possess the sad but certain knowledge that secularism in it mature form is little more than the mask for a militant and tyrannical religion, the religion of human world dominion.

The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, by Rubens, 1634–1636

The enemy of the Chanukah rebellion was not “the Greeks.” The enemy was a spiritual force incarnate in those god-emperors who were spawned from the dismemberment of Alexander of Macedon’s conquests. As a spiritual force it was more or less equivalent to what we call modernity. It was, and is, extremely attractive. We experience it in our attraction to sports, eroticism, mind altering substances, spectacles of various sorts, money, military virtue, and the worship of heroes and heroines. In short, all the things which we love and seem to make life interesting for a time, but which can destroy us in the long run. All the Maccabees could offer in their stead was the love of God. It was a very unequal contest, and God won.

For an 18th century Western philosopher “God wins” might have seemed a very odd rallying cry for liberalism. However they would have recognized the expression “a government of laws and not of men.” Today, to be politically correct we would be expected to say “a government of laws, not of men and women and people who are both or neither.” Whether such emendations are an improvement, they are not such an improvement as to reverse the moral equation in the phrase “a government of laws and not of men (i.e. humans)” Forgetting about specifics of time, space, and hallacha, that 18th century slogan is identical in spirit to that which animated the Chanukah rebellion, if we are willing to give the latter a universal interpretation.

Now one must realize that the rulers of Hellenistic empires in the 2nd century BCE were already very “advanced” from the point of view of contemporary progressive historiography. For one thing, they already believed in evolution. Not Darwinian evolution of course, but legal evolution, or what would today be called positive law. The god-emperors of the Seleucid and other Hellenistic states were free to cancel ancient laws and make up new ones according to their own fancy. It was change you could believe in, and in fact you had to believe in it or you were in big trouble.

Now to be fair, the rabbis have frequently been accused of playing fast and loose with the statute books, to the point where some have characterized Judaism as a religion in a constant state of evolution. However those changes have always had to line up, in some fashion, with the basic principles of the Torah, principles which have not been added to since the time of Moses. In other words, the Torah provides a base line and reference point for any subsequent kosher variety of Judaism. Such a base line was absent from the moral reasoning of the ancient Greek world. This was widely understood, and it bothered the Greeks themselves. Notably, Plato tried to provide such a base line, but met with only limited success. Some say he was familiar with the Torah and was inspired to emulate it. Be that as it may, Plato tried to formulate a system of legal objectivity based on metaphysics. However the fruits of his efforts, even at the theoretical level, are rather obscure and fragmentary.

At the practical level, Plato encountered even greater obstacles, and was never able to convince any rulers of the 4th century BCE Mediterranean world to institute a system of objective metaphysics-based laws. If Plato had been able to see two centuries into the future, it would not have presented a pretty picture to him. Instead of philosopher-kings, the world was being ruled by petty gods who legislated according to their own arbitrary wills. It is in this ideological context that one has to extract the universal significance of the Chanukah incident. Likewise if the American founders and other philosophers of the 18th century West could see ahead to our own time, they would be as dismayed at the globalist-Marxist cartel as Plato would be at the Hellenistic god-emperors.

Keep in mind that all sorts of rogues call themselves “liberals” these days, but we are using the word in its original sense. Accordingly anyone who believes in a “government of laws and not (tyrannical) men” would want to line up with the Maccabees against the Seleucids. Or at least our better selves would. The opposition has lots of ways to attract our bad inclinations to its side. On the one hand there are the obvious temptations (sex, money etc. etc. etc….) on the other hand there is the seemingly wise counsel against the strictures, indeed the fanaticism, of an objective law.

Commenting on, let alone defending, the specific hallachic (statute) ordinances of the post-revolutionary order in Judea, when the Maccabee revolution devolved into the Hasmonian state, goes far beyond the scope of this article, not to mention the competence of its author. However I would like to conclude with a small but salient observation on the methodology of a religious revolution. Why did the Jewish Hasmonians succeed while the Greek Platonists failed? Of course, we are assuming that the Hasmonians did succeed, which is an assumption seldom granted. As historian Henry Abrahamson informs his viewers, the Hasmonians have generally been frowned on even within the traditions of normative Judaism. According to Abrahamson it was this anti-Hasmonian outlook which for centuries relegated Chanukah to the level of a candle-lighting and doughnut eating party. Even today, the Hasmonians are not held in great esteem, but the fact is that they managed to establish Jewish realm on the ground, one which at least presumed to be based on objective law.

It seems to me that the Greeks, for all their brilliance, succumbed to tyranny because their behavior patterns left them vulnerable to tyrannic exploitation. The Maccabees, with what modern psychology would dismiss as a “fetish” for correct deportment, were able to interiorize their discipline and free themselves from a slavery to desire and fear of tyrannical authority. Plato and the Maccabees both wanted justice, but they grasped the problem from different ends. Plato attempted to construct a metaphysics and then apply it to ethics. The Maccabean method was the inverse of this. They find an echo in the slogan of the modern philosopher Levinas who famously stated “ethics precedes ontology.” Indeed, it was the “senseless” morals and rituals of the Jews which secured for them the intimations of monotheism and an objective cosmology. The very monotheism which Plato could dream about, but was powerless to pass on to his heirs.

And that is a theme for anyone to meditate on, Greek, Jew or whomever, while eating one’s doughnut. Happy Chanukah!

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