11 December 2009

Might, Power & Spirit

David Brooks nails it in his column today about Hanukah--what a rich and complicated festival it is and how, when one scratches beneth the surface of its message of "religious freedom" by celebrating with candles, dreidels, latkes, chocolate and jelly donuts, one sees a moral and historical object lesson in religious reform and extremism that still plays itself out today in real ways.

Alarmingly, one can see, for example, in today's Haaretz, a story about settlers vandalizing a mosque in Yasuf in the northern West Bank, part of the payback policy that settlers are carrying out in retaliation for PM Netanyahu's ordered freeze on settlement expansion and construction. The settlers' guerilla tactics are disturbingly reminiscent of Macabi attempts to cleanse the land of "foreign" elements.

One wishes, in fact, that Brooks, who bases his reporting in large part on the work that Jeffrey Goldberg is doing in writing a new book about Judah Maccabee, based on and expanding in his own inimitable way, as I'm sure he will, an earlier Schocken publication by Elias Bickerman on the same subject. In short, what we tell the kids just ain't the half of it. By the way, if you haven't seen or heard, here's Jeffrey's story behind the famous Orrin Hatch Hanukah song that Tablet launched this week.

It makes one think how a community should systematically tell the story across the ages: the dreidels and treats up to a certain age of development; and then, as the mind and heart grow more prepared to handle life's complexities and brutal truths, to reveal the ugly underside to crusading war of religious purification, unfettered from any fear of using violence in the name of religious reform. Such complexities are too much to bear for most, so we nibble on chocolate gelt, which thankfully, Brooklyn's own Leah Koenig places in just the right context. You can read it here.

The Rabbis in the Talmud avoid most of the history and really are credited with giving us the 8 Day Miracle story, arguably in a valiant effort to bury the dreadful violence and elevate the spirit of light and freedom.

Looking around this world, they have given us something to continue to reach for: the Sages chose the prophet Zechariah's vision of the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. And as Zechariah reports his prophetic dialogue with an angel, where the angel tells the prophet God's vision for the Temple: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit."

When we are old enough and wise enough to absorb this lesson, the inherent tension involved in it, we may be then ready to assimilate Hanukah's real lessons.

1 comment:

Ravavi said...

My problem with David Brooks' op ed piece on Chanukah is his marginalization of the rabbis vis a vis the holiday. Doesn't he realize that without the Sages there is no holiday! The complexity is all in the text--the absence of individual Hasmoneans, a vague description of the war, a miracle that wasn't technically necessary, and an eight day festival that only needs a daf and a half of Talmud. It is an adult holiday, but not for the reason Brooks enumerates.