Chanuka — holiday of pluralism or holiday of truth?

With Chanuka coming in a few days we can be sure that along with the Chanuka tree and the Chanuka wreath, we will have the annual round of phony newspaper stories about Chanuka being the holiday of religious freedom.

The usual story (American version) goes something like this: There were these bad guys, the Greeks/Republicans/Christian Right who persecuted the good guys, the Jews/Democrats/pluralists. The bad guys tried to impose a theocracy and do away with the Bill of Rights. Then there was like a total unbelievable miracle and these Jews who are normally peace-loving pacifists got up the gumption to stand up for the principle of Separation of Church and State and multiculturalism. And the good guys won! The theocracy of the Greeks was overthrown, and the Jews established instead a liberal democracy with religious freedom for all.

Of course this story is total nonsense. What was really going on was that the Greeks persecuted the Jews because they couldn’t stand the Jews’ uppityness in declaring that they had the only true religion and the only real G-d. The Greeks believed in lots of gods and would have happily welcomed Buddhists, Wiccans, Gaians and whoever else wanted to join — as long as they didn’t claim to have the One Exclusive Truth. That claim to truth really stuck in their craw.

Well those pesky, intolerant Jews went around saying that idols in the Temple or pigs on the altar were somehow a “defilement of the holy” and the Greeks weren’t having any of that. They were going to put those snooty Jews in their place once and for all.

Strangely, the biggest enemies of the Maccabees (who were the Torah-true Jews of the day) were not Greeks but Hellenist Jews. It was these Greek-loving Jews who tried to use the power of the courts, sorry scratch that, the power of the Greek rulers to overthrow strict monotheism and bring in polytheism (multiculturalism) instead.

The Greeks had all kinds of glittery attractive things like art and math and astronomy and Olympic sports with athletes running around nude and bowing to nifty gods, also the Greeks had a system that allowed for quite a bit of latitude in personal morality, and the Hellenist Jews really wanted that glittery stuff. They went so far as to ban bris milah, because circumcised men were embarrassed to be seen in the nude Olympics (I am not making this up) and they didn’t want Jewish babies to grow up embarrassed anymore.

So the big stand-off was between polytheism and monotheism, between immorality and holiness, and G-d sided with the monotheists and put the pagans in their place.

Oh and later on the Rabbis did use Greek math and science but rejected Greek morality and culture, so to this day we pick and choose what aspects of non-Jewish society we will accept. Torah Jews are OK with medicine and accounting but we are not into sleaze magazines. We still aim for holiness, however uphill the battle.

And that’s the real story of Chanuka.

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14 comments to Chanuka — holiday of pluralism or holiday of truth?

  • Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)

    So… we should let the “Good Guys” (the Christian Right) write us out of American society and (ab)use us for their bloody Eschatological games because we can’t stand the idea that they claim to have the One Exclusive Truth?

  • Toby Katz

    Since I can’t understand what Steg is asking I will ask and answer a different question.

    Question: Do you think that America should be a Christian theocracy?
    Answer: No, in America and in every other non-Jewish country I am a nineteenth century classical liberal. I believe in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am in favor of the separation of church and state — with minority rights guaranteed — as understood by the Founding Fathers of this country.

    I am tremendously grateful to the United States for the freedom it gives to Jews to practice our religion and I believe that G-d has blessed this country because it has been good to the Jews, as He promised Avraham.

    Another Question: Are you sure the Chanuka story was a battle between the forces of immorality and the forces of holiness? Maybe it really was a battle between the forces of religious coercion and the forces of religious freedom?

    Answer: Yes, I’m sure. No, the Chashmonaim did not fight for the right of each person to worship his own god. They fought for the One True G-d. You could look it up.

  • Mordechai

    ” phony newspaper stories about Chanuka being the holiday of religious freedom.”

    But that tale is actually being spread by many bearded Lubavitcher emissaries as they foist myriads of menoras on an unsuspecting public, who think that they represent orthodox Judaism. What can be done about this serious problem ?

  • DovBear

    Strangely, the biggest enemies of the Maccabees (who were the Torah-true Jews of the day) were not Greeks but Hellenist Jews. It was these Greek-loving Jews who tried to use the power of the courts, sorry scratch that, the power of the Greek rulers to overthrow strict monotheism and bring in polytheism (multiculturalism) instead.

    Nice try but polythieism and multi-culturalism are not the same thing. And don’t forget how the story ends: Within a generation the Macabees were Hellenized -complete with Greek names. John Hyrkanus was one. Alexander Yannai was another. They were corrupt, vicious, enemies of the Rabbis. Greek in every way. Very, quickly, they became exactly the sort of people the family founders had fought against. All Judah and his band of brothers managed to do was delay the inevitable.

    So maybe a religious dictatorship wasn’t such a hot idea, seeing as how these things tends to end up.

  • Toby Katz

    Lubavitchers have occasionally been guilty of shading the truth for the sake of kiruv — trying to make Chanuka palatable to the modern ear — but they have not been nearly as guilty as the C and R movements, which do not merely feed this PC stuff to newbies for the sake of kiruv, but teach it to their own kids as if it were the traditional Jewish understanding of the holiday.

    BTW the ACLU — which has a heavy Jewish contingent — has fought Chabad tooth and nail over menorahs in public places. I have been slightly irritated by Chabad’s tactic of denying in court that the menorah is a religious symbol. But on the whole I am glad they have beaten the ACLU in most cases. I like seeing menorahs in public places. Now we just have to undo the wrong message — “national symbol, religious freedom” — and teach the right message — “We are a holy people.”

  • Charles B. Hall, PhD

    Regarding the ACLU and religious expression, the story is a bit more subtle than Ms. Katz
    indicates. The ACLU has a long history of opposing government sponsored religious expression
    when the purpose is clearly to promote religion — but opposing government when it tries to
    restrict it. For example, they opposed the religious displays in Allegheny County, PA, because
    they were in an area where no one else was permitted to put up displays.

    http://www.oyez.org/oyez/resource/case/87/

    They do not oppose the religious displays in Union Square, San Francisco, CA, because they are in
    an area where anyone, not just religious organizations, can put up displays.

    http://aclunc.org/opinion/971231-religion.html

    And they sued the transit system that serves the Boston area when that system refused an ad
    that a church wanted to place in the subway cars.

    http://www.aclu.org/freespeech/gen/11511prs20041209.html

    In general, the ACLU is a big ally in support of religious expression in America — as long as
    it isn’t endorsed or paid for by the government.

  • Mar Gavriel

    Hey, I actually agree with Toby Katz’s interpretation of Chnukke! (This might be the first time that I have agreed with anything that Toby Katz ever said.) And I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and pluralist! (But the Maccabees weren’t. I observe Chnukke because it’s a halokho, not because I would necessarily have gotten along so well with the Maccabees.)

    Though Antiochus and his cronies were bad, too. They didn’t let us keep Torah. I don’t believe in limiting religious expression, especially if it is my own beloved religion (Torah) that is being limited.

  • Toby Katz

    Local ACLU chapters have considerable autonomy and therefore it is a bit of a misnomer to speak of “the” ACLU but in general, the ACLU has been very hostile to religion. Theirs is an equal-opportunity hostility for the most part, since they try to suppress the public display of Jewish religious symbols as well as Christian. Interestingly they have taken no exception to the promotion of paganism, so that Halloween and Valentine’s Day are openly celebrated and even promoted in public schools without a peep from the ACLU.

  • Mar Gavriel

    Interestingly they have taken no exception to the promotion of paganism, so that Halloween and Valentine’s Day are openly celebrated and even promoted in public schools without a peep from the ACLU.

    (St.) Valentine’s Day is Catholic, nisht emmes?

  • Toby Katz

    DB: “Nice try but polythieism and multi-culturalism are not the same thing.”

    TK: Tell that to the Wiccans and the Gaia lovers.

    DB: “Within a generation the Macabees were Hellenized -complete with Greek names.”

    TK: Very true, and very sad. Eventually Jewish assimilation and Jewish sin led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews from their homeland — according to the Sages of the Talmud, anyway, who connect catastrophe and loss with Jewish sin. I know that DB does not agree with the Rabbis on this point. I am Orthodox, others are whatever they are. As an Orthodox Jew I consider it a terrible and tragic end that the desendants of the Maccabees ended up just like the Hellenists their fathers had fought so hard against.

    DB: “So maybe a religious dictatorship wasn’t such a hot idea, seeing as how these things tends to end up.”

    TK: You echo the words of the Prophet Shmuel (Samuel) when the Jews importuned him to appoint a king over them. He warned them that a king would have powers over them and that they would suffer a loss of freedom — which they nevertheless accepted, for the sake of national security and strong central authority. In more modern times we have found democracy (or a democratic monarchy like England) to be the best form of government in most respects.

    In ancient times democracy was not yet one of the options. It was Greek rule or Jewish rule, Torah rule or pagan rule, but democratic rule was not yet on the map.

    It is not inevitable BTW that a king will be evil or tyrannical, of course, as you can see by reading the Book of Kings — Melachim.

    What will be when Moshiach comes, I am not sure, but it seems we will have a monarchy again. The single factor that makes a monarchy good and not evil is that the king submits to G-d’s will and that both he and his people obey the Torah. An evil king is indeed, as you say, an evil for the whole nation.

  • Toby Katz

    Mar Gavriel wrote:

    “(St.) Valentine’s Day is Catholic, nisht emmes?”

    The “St.” which he put in parentheses speaks volumes. Valentine’s Day started out as a pagan holiday, an erotic holiday with immoral overtones. Valentine is identified with Cupid or Venus or who knows how many other Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.

    Later the Catholic church adopted this pagan holiday (as it did so many others), invented a “Saint” Valentine and “kashered” the pagan day, turning it into one of their many saints’ days.

    Needless to say if it were still “Saint” Valentine’s Day and if it still had anything to do with the Catholic Church, no public school in the USA would have anything to do with it. But it has been successfully purged of any Christian element and returned to its original pagan roots. Avodah Zarah is fully permissible and encouraged by the people who run the public schools today.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    TK: As an Orthodox Jew I consider it a terrible and tragic end that the desendants of the Maccabees ended up just like the Hellenists their fathers had fought so hard against.

    Ori: Did they? They were Hellenized themselves, granted, but did they outlaw Judaism the way the Hellenistic Jews did before the rebellion, or did they just not follow it?

    There is a big difference between the two, as big as the difference between living in Spain in 1500 (observing Judaism in secret, and living in terror of the Inquisition) and living in Israel in 2000.

  • Toby Katz

    Ori, you are correct, they were not as bad as the Greeks or the original Jewish Hellenists.

  • DovBear

    It is not inevitable BTW that a king will be evil or tyrannical, of course, as you can see by reading the Book of Kings—Melachim.

    Yes, I’ve read Kings. Did it escape your notice that the Jewish kings overwhelmingly were tyrants and idol worshippers?