Note: This is a comment on David Brooks's op-ed in the NYT of December 11, 2009, on the story of Hanukkah. (The NYT online edition no longer accepted comments by the time I read the article.)
Reading the Hanukkah story as a morality tale, as David Brooks does, is fine. It’s a kind of sermon that bases its moral claims, intended to teach a lesson about current trends, on trends one reads into the ancient scriptures. This too would be fine if the authority of the moral of the story did not rest on the claim to have uncovered the true historical core of an ancient story. Analogies between ancient stories and modern conflicts are a conjuring trick not just performed by preachers but also by historians who attempt to render ancient events plausible by using modern terms and situations to describe what is ultimately unknowable. We don’t know anything reliable about the Maccabees that goes beyond the lively but tendentious and contradictory accounts found in texts written decades after the events and in the interest of justifying the rise to power among the Jews of a family of usurpers who took the high priesthood and the title of kings without any leg to stand on in earlier Jewish tradition. Their only claim to fame was the act of cult restoration known as “hanukat ha-bayit,” the rededication of the temple. The Books of the Maccabees are ancient propaganda of a type familiar since the days of the Assyrian empire. Power required divine legitimization; no better source of legitimacy than the restoration of an ancient cult that had been tampered with. (For a brilliant scholarly analysis of this aspect of the story of Hanukkah see Steven Weitzman, "Plotting Antiochus's Persecution" in Journal of Biblical Literature 123/2 (2004) pp. 219-234.)
Neither David Brooks nor President Obama, in his brief message on this occasion, realized the ironies entailed in the rabbinic transformation of Hasmonean propaganda into the miracle of the small quantum of oil, sufficient for a day, that lasted for an entire week. Nor does David Brooks consider the irony of the fact that the rabbis banished the Books of the Maccabees from their canon. It’s not in the Jewish Bible, ladies and gentlemen; it’s only in Christian Bibles, where it is sometimes stowed away (along with other interesting literature) in the apocrypha. The Crusaders, btw, loved the Maccabees.
What Brooks is really saying is that the virulence of Hanukkah arises not from its psycho-social effect of compensating for Christmas but from its revival in the Zionist movement. The Books of the Maccabees celebrate brash action taken not just against the Seleucids (who were Macedonians rather than Greeks; the entire characterization of the Maccabean revolt as the uprising of a Taliban-like group [Brooks's "angry bearded men"] against Western universalists is amusing but significantly mischaracterizes the affair) but also against Jewish traditionalists, and for political reasons that were much simpler and more mundane than the morality tale allows. Modern Zionism realized an affinity with the ancient “muscled Jews” (as Herzl’s second in command, Max Nordau, called them) and has since foregrounded precisely those aspects of the story that the rabbis sought to obscure and neutralize.
Brooks's morality tale is, of course, quite timely. The modern synthesis of rabbinic religion and Maccabean political and military activism has bred a type of Judaism that is indistinguishable from the politicized Islam of the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. This modern phenomenon gives us little to celebrate and much to fear.