Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chanukah sameach

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah.

Mostly, we tend to think of Chanukah as an obvious and positive holiday. But it's a subtle holiday too, sometimes a little too subtle for some people.

It's the second century BCE, in Judea and Jerusalem, around 167. Since the demise of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Judeans (Jews) had lived peacefully and alternating under Alexander's military successors, the Egyptian Ptolomies (who ruled from Alexandria, in Egypt) and the Syrian Seleucids (who ruled from Damascus), dividers of his empire after his death. In that year, a crazy new Syrian Greek ruler named Antiochos IV Epiphanes decided that he was a god and demanded that his subjects worship him. This was a not-unknown expression of mental illness among the Hellenistic rulers, from inbred families, who reigned between Alexander and the arrival of the Romans.* It's not clear if all his subjects complied, but we know of one group who refused.

The Hashmonai'im (Hasmoneans), a Jewish priestly family, revolted against Antiochos and waged a guerrilla war of several years before recapturing Jerusalem and restoring the Temple (chanukat ha-Bayit) that had been defiled by the Greek idols and pig sacrifices earlier forced on the priests. But it's not historically right to overinterpret this moment, although from it have come some hoary myths that never die. It's disturbing to see someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens (a self-styled atheist who is Jewish on his mother's side) repeat them.

It's not true that Jews rejected all that Greek stuff when they defeated the Seleucids, or that their struggle was one of "Hebraism versus Hellenism." The pre-exilic Israelites had already had centuries of sustained, pre-Alexander contact with the Greeks, first from the islands (the Kittim), then later from Asia Minor (the Yavanim).** After Alexander's spreading of urban Greek culture in the late fourth century BCE, Jews had become significantly Hellenized in many ways. In fact, they were Hellenized before, and they were Hellenized after, the 167 revolt. What they were rejecting was religious coercion, as well as reasserting their political independence. The former has had far more and much better impact in the long run than the latter, which just installed the Hasmoneans and later Herod. The Hasmoneans became so Hellenized that they started calling themselves things like Alexander and Jason, which have remained Jewish names ever since. One of the first rabbis listed in the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot has the utterly Greek name of Antigonos, male form of Antigone - as in the daughter of Oedipus and protagonist of the famous play by Sophocles.

And the notion of the Jews, at least that late in antiquity, being "primitive" or "tribal" is preposterous. The Israelites had once been tribal - a thousand years earlier, in the late Bronze Age, when they conquered Canaan. But by the time Alexander arrived in 332 BCE, the Jews had been through tribal federation, centralized monarchy, exile, and the destruction of clan distinctions. By the Roman period, there was little left of tribalism, apart from the caste distinctions of the priests (Levites and Kohanim). By late antiquity, the Jews became predominantly urban, probably the first people in history to be so.

Of course, these Hellenized Jews were observant and didn't participate in the Hellenized pagan religions of the gentile peoples around them. But Greek culture nonetheless permeated everyday life in Alexander's empire (later the eastern Roman Empire). Greek words (like synagogos, sanhedrin or synhedrion, qolar, kan-kan or can, epikomon or dessert, karpas or parsley, kalonymos = kalos nymos or good name, etc.) run to the many thousands in rabbinic Hebrew. We know of many Greek-speaking Jewish authors from that period, although the works of only two - Josephus and Philo - survive more or less intact, mainly because Christians preserved them, for their own reasons.

I am thinking of adding a large naked statue of Zeus to my living room, but that's beside the point :)

It would be silly to deny the influences, in both directions, and the religion of those Hellenized Jews, while different from ours in some respects, in no way contradicted their functioning in a predominantly Greek world, even under later Roman rule. How far they were aware of the Greek high culture is unclear. They knew about Homer and the dramatists; how much they knew about the Greek philosophical schools (the Platonists, the Aristotelians or Peripatetics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans) is less clear. The word Apikoros (Epikoros - Latinized, Epicurus) survives as an epithet for a skeptic or religious scoffer.

Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today comes mainly from Babylonia (Mesopotamia), where Aramaic-speaking Jews lived semi-autonomously under the Zoroastrian Persians. Even there, Hellenistic influences were significant. But those Jews did not have the intimate contact with Greek culture that the Roman-ruled Jews had. The rabbis were impressed most by the beauty and flexibility of the Greek language. Alluding to the Septuagint (the first complete translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, done in the third century BCE), they recalled the blessing† to "beautify Yephet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem."

The rabbis also had a subtle point to the way they bequeathed Chanukah to us. They deliberately de-emphasized the military and political aspects of the Hasmonean victory, as these proved ephemeral: within a few years, the Hasmoneans had usurped the priesthood and become quite corrupt. It was the religious significance they emphasized instead, as if to say, this is what's really important, the recovery and rededication of the Temple. The military victory was just a means to that end. After the two great Jewish revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries, the rabbis were in no mood to stoke more messianic hopes and military heroics in any case.

Chag sameach!

POSTSCRIPT: Sources?! You want sources, we got sources :)

~ Pseudo-biblical: The Scroll of Antiochus: widely read by Jewish congregations at Chanukah until modern times. It's in Aramaic, which points to composition in Eretz Israel or Babylonia in late antiquity; it is probably based on earlier sources, either Aramaic or Greek. The scroll's nature and provenance have been controversial since it first appeared in the 8th century.

~ Rabbinic: Megillat Ta'anit, a list of days when Jews are supposed to fast and not fast. It's part of the Mishnah, which was originally composed, memorized, and recited orally. Composed in Hebrew some time between the arrival of the Romans in 37 BCE and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, it's also sometimes called Megillat Hashmonai'im and is mostly about matters related to the Hasmoneans.

~ Apocrypha: The two Books of the Maccabees (the nom de guerre of the Hasmoneans), composed in Hebrew and Greek in the late second century BCE. They were rejected for the Jewish canon, but are recognized in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Bibles as "deuterocanonical"; i.e., not in the Hebrew canon, but added by Christians at a lower level of authority. The first (probably the earlier) is straightforwardly historical, while the second has a stronger pious tinge but tells a more complex story.

There are some later books under the same name, but with much less authenticity and importance.

~ Josephus: The first-century Jewish commander who defected to the Romans during the Jewish war (66-73 CE) and wrote four extant works in Greek, including Antiquities of the Jews and The War of the Jews.

~ Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: These were major languages of the Persian, eastern Roman, and western Roman empires, respectively. Aramaic is a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew. Because rabbinic literature was composed mainly in Eretz Israel and Babylonia, it's in a mix of the two Semitic languages. Aramaic is still spoken by a few Christians in Lebanon and Iraq.
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* The Romans themselves had a number of such mentally ill rulers, the most famous being Caligula (ruled 37-41 CE), who also demanded that his subjects worship him as a god. He made the mistake of insulting the Roman Senate by elevating his horse to Senator, and a conspiracy of republican-minded Senators assassinated him.

** There's no distinctive Hebrew word for the Greeks of mainland European Greece, like the Athenians (Attica), the Spartans, or the Thracians. Kitti is cognate to Kition (modern Larnaca), the capital of Cyprus; Yavan (pronounce it Yawan), to Iowon, archaic for Ionia (Asia Minor).

† Genesis 9:27. A Hebrew pun: "beautify" is yaf't, sometimes translated as "enlarge."

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