What Chanukah ought to teach us

Like most things in Judaism, we trot out our Chanukah story without paying it much attention. Bad Greeks tried to stamp out our religion but our plucky Maccabees—the so-called Hammers—fought back and miraculously rededicated the temple after it had been desecrated. In a separate miracle, a day’s worth of oil lasted a week.

It’s a nice story and with a bit more precision—the “Greeks” weren’t Greek but Syrian Selucids under Antiochus—it almost makes historical sense. The question of motivation is less clear. Our standard reading is that the Maccabees revolted in order to restore Jewish worship, but what the Maccabees actually wanted is no more obvious than what Antiochus wanted. We tell the story in terms of religion but politics and economic rivalry may have counted for just as much, if not more.

We’re able to repeat the Maccabee element of our national myth in conventional terms because of whom we tell it to: ourselves. The story serves our purposes—we were weak, and under threat, but we overcame, with God’s help—and that’s enough. But when I had to tell the story at my daughter’s secular state school, issues emerged that never come up when we tell the story on our own territory.

In my part of London there’s a large expatriate Greek population, and this raised immediate sensitivities: to what extent could I polarise the actors in the Chanukah tale into bad Greeks and good Jews, Greek oppressors and Jewish victims? (Come to that, how does the Jewish community in Greece, what’s left of it, deal with the Chanukah story without pissing off their neighbours, the Christodoulous and the Papadopouloses?)

A second question followed on from this: even if there weren’t any Greek children in my daughter’s class, how legitimate is it ever to cast ourselves as history’s goodies and other nations—any other nations—as history’s baddies?

The same question arose when I talked to the same class about Pesach the year before. Did I want to label Pharoah’s victims as Jews, and his slavemasters as Egyptians? I found I didn’t, for several reasons, and not just because there might have been Egyptian children in the class. First, treating the story as a simple binary clash between Jews and Egyptians doesn’t even begin to get at what it was really about. And second, I wanted the children to associate with the slaves, and yet it was quite clear that to call them Hebrews, Jews or Israelites was a distancing device.

It was far more effective to generalise, and simply talk about poor people who were forced to work and had no freedom. Suddenly everyone could identify with that, and the story became a useful morality tale and not a tale of Jewish triumphalism, about which no one could care too much.

In the same way, I talked about there being a bad king—of no specific national dentity—who wanted to exploit a group of immigrants to make himself and his country rich, and everyone understood that too.

Generalising meant that no one was exposed to Jewish sanctimony and moral arrogance, and no one came away feeling that his or her own national identity had been sacrificed on the altar of Jewish self-interest and self-obsession.

Telling the Chanukah story carries similar risks, and sensitivity is needed that might not come easily to those of us whose teaching never strays beyond the synagogue.

There’s another difficulty. Not infrequently when we tell ourselves the story of Chanukah these days, we pit two world views against each other. What was really at issue, we like to say, was Greek rationalism versus Jewish pluralism. The Greeks like their facts black and white, but we Jews, by contrast, prefer to accommodate contradiction, making us morally more complex and realistic.

Where this silly idea came from—that the Syrian Seleucids were the fountainhead of Cartesian dualism—is hard to say. Admiration for pluralism, also, is really a back-reading by teachers who picked up a few crumbs of post-modernism from their friends. And yet some of the most impressive minds in Jewish education and rabbinics repeat this stuff willy nilly without a whiff of concern.

They’ve learnt it from others. They’ve learnt also, not least from our revered former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, that dropping a morsel of classical philosophy into a sermon always bulks it out, however weak the argument behind it may be.

Besides which, when you’re teaching children, and when you’re on God’s business, you’re apparently licensed to play fast and loose with the truth.

When you’re talking to a group of Greek children, however, or any group of children who aren’t Jewish, or any group of non-Jews of whatever age, a little more responsibility is called for. You have to be more truthful and better informed, because it’s quite likely that non-Jews, without the baggage of Jewish teleology, won’t be as forgiving as our own people are.

In learning this, we start to realise the great value of the non-Jewish community and our association with it: if we have any sensitivity at all, we simply can’t get away in public with what we get away with behind closed doors.

Exposure to non-Jews forces us to think harder about what we teach, and how it might be understood, not just by us but by others. That, of course, is precisely the opposite of the Chanukah message. And yet it is greatly to our own advantage. Not every nail requires a Hammer.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, editor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time editing various volumes of the Tanach.
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