by Jesse A. Myerson
OY, IT’S KHANIKE again, and a familiar unease has come creeping into my kishkes.
To some extent, I’m annoyed about the overemphasis on a minor holiday in order to compensate ourselves for our exclusion from Christmastime cheer. Mostly, though, my discomfort stems from the troubling legacy of the historical events Khanike commemorates. The more disturbing aspects of the Maccabean revolt make the sort of exaltation the ceremony demands difficult to muster, which is perhaps why we tend to gloss over the details, disobeying the song’s exhortation to let the ceremonial candlelight “remind us of days long ago.”
In 165 BC, Judea was riven by internal divisions. On the one side were the Hellenized Jews, whose adoption of Greco-Roman ideas and modes of conduct ingratiated them with the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus. He entrusted the government of Judea to them, first to Jason and then to his usurper Menelaus. Under their governance, Roman law supplanted Jewish law. No longer would genital mutilation or ritual sacrifice be permitted; Jewish-gentile intermarriage, however, would be, as would participation in the Olympics.
On the other side was the Maccabee army, a traditionalist sect who insisted on a return to strictly devout Jewish governance. Its leaders, Judah and his brothers Jonathan and Simon, were the sons of Matthias, who had had to flee Judea after killing a Hellenistic Jew for worshipping before an idol. Their revolt saw the demolition of pagan altars and the adoption of compulsory circumcision for children — and the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, which expanded the territory of Israel and reigned for nearly a century.
Time was, as a young “new atheist,” that my sympathies lay with the Hellenized Jews. They seemed to be reformers, courageously breaking with repressive theocracy in pursuit of a society that valued reason, fostered international cooperation, and encouraged religious moderation. The Maccabees, on the other hand, seemed like violent fanatics, waging a holy war devoted to imposing retrograde religious law.
Over the last decade, however, I have come to be of two minds on the Khanike question. As backward as halakhic law was in many regards, in the fields I prioritize most highly, property and labor law, the Maccabees’ system was greatly superior to that of their Hellenistic counterparts: The Jewish way imposed on the wealthy significantly more onerous obligations toward bondsmen, tenants, and debtors than the Seleucid way.
Emancipation Judaism requires us to honor both sides of this Jewish civil war, but adulate neither. The Hellenic Jews leave us a legacy of internationalism and scientific curiosity, a relaxation of the insistence that Jews are God’s chosen people and a celebration of all God’s pleasures — not just sublime worship and communal song but sumptuous grapes and enlivened loins as well. The Maccabees understood God’s justice to protect the downtrodden from capricious or cruel landlords, employers, and creditors, and they staunchly refused a system which, for all its claim to humanism and rationality, in practice engendered hierarchy and corruption.
Even had the Maccabees been an uncomplicated force for good, and even had their vanquished opponents not been Jews themselves, my kishkes ache might nevertheless persist. After all, I am also uncomfortable singing too joyfully of how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and also when people attribute the shape of the Jewish star to that of King David’s shield.
My spirit rebels against celebrations of Israel as a conqueror-people.
IN THESE TIMES most of all, it is incumbent upon us to re-examine our glorification of those episodes in our history we have been told were victories, and ask whose victories they were — and whose losses.
I submit that the greatest episodes in the long history of the Jewish people have not come when we conquered non-Jewish society, nor when we have segregated ourselves from it (nor, needless to say, when we have been brutally repressed by it), but when we have dialectically engaged with it. From Babylonia and Spain at the turn of the second millennium CE, to Europe in the decades after the French Revolution, to Flatbush and Grand Concourse a century ago, Jewish intellectual and artistic life has flourished where Jews coexist with “the nations,” bringing what is uniquely Jewish into larger societies and letting non-Jewish ideas and cultures shape what it means to be Jewish.
Of course, those societies have been historically friendly to Jews. More often, when the bitter winds of oppression, exclusion and segregation have blown, Jews have wrapped themselves tightly in the the cloak of their identity; it is only in those rare times when the sun of emancipation and acceptance became pleasingly warm, that Jews have gradually opened it — and sometimes discarded it entirely.
How this process unfolded in the U.S. over the last half-century has been degrading for American Jewish identity. Our postwar assimilation involved a departure from multi-ethnic working class urban neighborhoods and a relocation to the white bourgeois suburbs — an integration, to paraphrase Dr. King, into a burning house. In this debased form, ironically, mainstream American Jewish society has arrayed itself behind the antithesis of assimilation: heavily militarized ethno-nationalism in Palestine.
Like its Maccabean predecessor, the Zionist project is absurd in the first instance, relying as it does on the myth of ideal Judaism, deviations from which may be considered contaminations of our culture. In its insistence on non-assimilation, the state of Israel erases the brilliant diversity of the true Israel — worldwide and deep within — and advances the legacy of the medieval ghetto, which, in stark contrast to Spain and Babylonia, saw the contraction and atrophy of Jewish intellectual and cultural life.
Today we see a younger generation of Jewish Americans that is revolted by what it sees in the Holy Land, signalling the fulfillment of Hannah Arendt’s 1948 prediction that Israel “would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people.” In the end, she wrote, “a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland.”
Still, even as the dangers of anti-assimilationist zealotry play out in Palestine, we are called not to lose what makes us Jewish. History has revealed periods of Jewish emancipation to be heartbreakingly, conscience-shockingly temporary and partial. Even now, antisemitic governments in the U.S. and Europe embolden ultra-rightwing, neo-Nazi formations that threaten Jews and the other populations in whose liberation ours is wrapped up: Muslims, immigrants, black people, and the indigenous peoples of this and other lands.
So we must perform that most Jewish feat and simultaneously take two stances between which there is some tension. On one hand, Jews are a particular, unique people with traditions ancient and modern, which we must conscientiously steward should we once again be subjected to intense repression. On the other, our thriving demands that we not segregate ourselves from other groups, but rather develop deep relationships with them predicated on our collective redemption from bondage.
So spin dreidels, fry latkes, and sing klezmer ditties — and let your kishkes ache about it.
Jesse A. Myerson is an Indiana-based organizer with Hoosier Action. His writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, The Nation and elsewhere.