Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. ― George Santayana
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I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. ― Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard
Any serious student of history knows that the past actually never repeats itself. There never will be another Shoah, nor will there ever be another Six Day War (though there may well be events bearing certain similarities). The reason is that people and events are shaped by the realities of their specific times. Every situation is the product of countless unique variables and their combinations. Hence no matter how profound they sound, both Santayana and Vonnegut were hopelessly wrong.
That being the case, the Talmud’s famous question, “What is Hanukkah,” rings especially true. In other words, if it was such a unique event (as all events actually are), what relevance does it have to us so many years later?
After all, Hanukkah was the result of a highly unusual combination of things coming together. There was a madman – Antiochus Epiphanes (Greek for, the divine) was often referred to as Epimanes (the crazy) behind his back. And then there was the constant rivalry and fighting between the Egyptian Greeks and the Syrian Greeks with Palestine on the fault line. Moreover – though it may not have been obvious at the time – this was the beginning of the wane of Greek power. Alexander’s successor kingdoms were starting to show signs of decline both culturally and politically – the Jewish revolt would only be one of the first of many losses these kingdoms would experience in the next two centuries. But if it was a tumultuous time for the Greeks, it may have been even more so for the Jews. The campaign to Hellenize the populations of Asia Minor had been largely peaceful up until the rule of Antiochus. Such a policy created room for the Jews to experience their first protracted culture war (though one could argue that the war waged by the prophets against idolatry had also been a culture war of sorts). Such a war of ideas brought a whole spectrum of opinions about how much Greek culture – if any – could be integrated.
So what is Hanukkah? In fact, we might well ask, “What is history altogether?” Luckily the same Talmudic rabbis who asked the question may be able to provide us with some sort of an answer – or at least an approach.
That approach can be found by turning the question of what is history into a statement. In the sense of finding meaning, history is a what. That is to say, it is a unknown variable that can obscure meaning more than it clarifies it. And that is why we find such a patently ahistorical penchant in rabbinic thought.
Some are disturbed by this – by the rabbis’ constant factoring out of the historical variables surrounding different personalities and events. In discussing David or Ya’akov, for example, they essentially present them as rabbis from their own time period. Critics legitimately ask, “Is this not terribly anachronistic?”
However I don’t believe the rabbis were naïve. Rather they made a conscious choice, so as to maximize what could be learned today from yesterday. They knew that putting too much emphasis on historical differences would prevent us from seeing the human constants that we all share. And so their strategy was to boil down stories from the past to their basic and universal essence. That meant keeping their eye on the human dimension – on the jealousy, hate, love, courage and wisdom that different individuals and groups exhibited under various conditions, and not at those conditions themselves.
Likewise regarding Hanukkah, we are best advised to look for the universal. In that way, we will avoid all of the false historical analogies often made. No, the Maccabees were not Orthodox zealots in the contemporary sense. Nor were they liberals or Zionists. Any lessons we would derive from conflating them with one of these ideologies of today would be artificial. But more important, it would not be helpful. We would gain much more if we noted that they were human beings caught in familiar dilemmas that require courage, determination and faith in God and in the importance of their unique identity.
This is not to say that we should not study history; just that we should not be overwhelmed by it.
If we are interested in relating the experience of other time periods to ourselves, we have no choice but to focus on that which is essential to the human condition.
I don’t think the rabbis just invented such a perspective. Like the rabbis, the Bible also largely places history on the side as it tells us its tales. It is not from ignorance of the importance of these factors to the events that actually happened, as much as awareness of their lack of importance to their relevance for us. As Leon Kass frames it so beautifully, “more than telling us what happened, the Torah’s narratives tells us what always happens.” In that sense, Kurt Vonnegut would be right, when he tells us that life is about repeating the past. While history never repeats itself, the human story always repeats itself. And so we learn about that essential past precisely to know how to repeat it.