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The paper menorah

If Hanukkah is about the virtue of courage, then there's a Maccabee in all men -- even the monks in his monastery

I have a friend who is a commander in the IDF. He’s not real keen on Jesus.

Lately, what bugs him most about Jesus is his gentleness. This is the Christian message that filtered down to my Jewish friend through who-knows-what channels: Turn the other cheek.

That comes from the Gospel of Luke (6:29).

One could cite other sentences where Jesus speaks against violence: “Put away your sword,” and “Those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) or “Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away!’” (John 18:11). Taking phrases from the New Testament out of context is a great way to bungle your theology, by the way.

My soldier friend says that these “pacifist” remarks of Jesus have influenced Jews as well as Christians. We have all become cowards who cringe at the thought of violence. And it’s all the fault of the Lamb of God.

I can see why a soldier in Israel might be reflecting on wimpiness at this particular time. It seems the civilized world is coming to an end through cowardice. And cowardice is a symptom of decadence.

When I pointed out that the greatest theologian of the Catholic tradition, Thomas Aquinas, is also the greatest just war theorist in history, and that his crystal-clear writings on how to make war are studied at West Point today, my friend was unmoved. It’s interesting to see that there is Catholic writing about the morality of violence, he says, but “it’s rare to see a monk walking around with an M-16 on his back.” Well, he’s right about that.

But most Christians are not monks, nor does any monk expect them to be.

And though it’s hard to talk about — knowing as we do the history of wayward crusades — there is such a thing as the man of war who is also a man of God. Indeed, the ancient teaching of the Church is that good people are sometimes obliged to go to war — to defend the good.

All this talk of God and violence comes, not coincidentally, during Chanukah.

Catholics are supposed to know about Chanukah. Many Jews are surprised to learn that both books of the Maccabees are part of the Catholic canon and are read aloud in church. Few Jews know that a reliquary of the “Holy Maccabees” has been venerated in Cologne for centuries, or that Christian painters from Raphael to Rubens rendered the Maccabees with éclat. Few Jews remember G.F. Händel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus. Problem is, few Christians remember it either.

Of course, the theme of martyrdom is particularly strong in our tradition, and the story of the Maccabees appeals on that level. But there is also the bracing and oh-how-necessary example of men who fought rather than give in to politically expedient decay.

Ask any priest who sits in the confessional in this time of YouTube exhibitionism, pimple-pussed selfie-snapping, and democratized porn: a festival of purification sounds great. (In our church in Krakow, a rotating team of priests hear confessions for ten hours every day.)

It’s time to be a soldier. This means something special for men, I think. More than a virtue of violence, there is the virtue of courage. And there is the concept of virtue itself, no longer self-evident to most of us, which denotes moral strength acquired through discipline. We aren’t too keen on virtue these days, but we need it as much as we ever did.

A Latinist would tell you can’t get the word “virtue” without “vir” — meaning “man”. Whether or not he carries a sword, a man wants to be a soldier. Every man can be a soldier for God.

Men are my audience in this monastery of 85 souls. After my IDF interlude, I re-read 2 Maccabees 4:13-14: “The craze for the Greek way of life and for foreign customs reached such a point  that even the priests lost all interest in their sacred duties. They lost interest in the Temple services and neglected the sacrifices. Just as soon as the signal was given, they would rush off to take part in the games that were forbidden by our Law.” God forbid that should happen to us.

I decided to remind the brethren of the example of the Maccabees.

As Providence would have it, there’s a Jewish holiday for that: if you slink down the snaky corridor of our old priory today, you will see on the door of my cell a paper menorah. Using the scissors skills I acquired in Catholic kindergarten, I created a chanukiyah out of the backs of old fliers and some Scotch tape.

I paste on a new orange flame every night.

And underneath, besides the words “radosnej Chanuki” (that’s “chag Chanukah sameach” in Polish) are scriptural citations. Look, brothers at the books of the Maccabees, and learn!

It is time to awaken the Maccabee in all of us.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.