Yay for the Bumpkins . . . ?

Emperor Antiochus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, 175 - 164 BCE, was still, despite rumors to the contrary, very much alive in 168 BCE. He was just coming off a bit of a humiliation in Egypt. Finding that his appointed high priest, Menelaus, had been run out, Antiochus took out his frustrations on Jerusalem.

Antiochus attacked the town, restored Menelaus as high priest of the temple, massacred a few thousand Jews, outlawed Jewish rites and traditions, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped as the Supreme God. He then went on his way, leaving behind a governor in Jerusalem, Philip, to enforce Hellenic religion.

Had the people of Jerusalem thought like modernists – or postmodernists – do, they might have adapted to the new worship requirements. "No big deal," they might have said. "Zeus is simply a metaphor for Yahweh. Just go with it." The people of the second century before the Common Era were not prepared to think that way.

A huge part of what religion has always been about is: who is “us,” and who is “them.” The origin of religion – the reason religion emerged among early humans – probably had a lot to do with rituals and stories that facilitated the tribe’s cohesiveness, which was crucial since battles between tribes were frequent. The tribes that had a strong sense of bonding to “us,” and had hostility to “them,” were the tribes that survived. For the Jews of the 2nd century BCE, the word “Zeus”, and bowing to a statue of Zeus, meant “them” – and siding with “them” was a betrayal of “us.” There’s no metaphoring around when tribal identity is at stake -- when “us” is fighting for its continued existence as a distinct identity against "them.”

The more Hellenized Jews, however, didn’t see it that way. They actually were saying, essentially, “This is no big deal. Just go with it.” The First Book of Maccabees relates how Greek soldiers forcibly gathered the Jewish villages and told them to bow down to a Greek idol, then eat some pork. A Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a High Priest, to do these things. Mattathias refused. When another villager stepped forward and offered to cooperate on Mattathias' behalf, Mattathias drew his sword and killed the villager, then turned on the Greek officer and killed him too. That he struck out first against a fellow Jew indicates the simmering civil conflict between the Jewish factions.

Mattathias’ five sons and the other villagers then attacked the remaining soldiers, killing all of them. Mattathias and his family went into hiding in the mountains, where other Jews wishing to fight against the Greeks joined them. Led most prominently by Mattathias son, Judas Maccabee, the rebels retook their land from the Greek Seleucids. The Maccabean revolt succeeded.

Once the Maccabees had regained control, they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and for sacrificing animals the Jews regarded as unclean. Judas Maccabee restored and rededicated the Temple.

That’s the Hanukkah story from First Maccabees, redacted in the late second century, relating the events of 350 years before. There’s nothing in the books of Maccabees about a one-day supply of oil lasting for eight days. There’s only this decree that
“every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days”
But why eight days? That bit isn’t explained until a portion of the Talmud written about 600 years after the Maccabean Revolt. That’s where we get the story of the Maccabees discovering that almost all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned. They found only a single container that was still sealed by the High Priest, and thus had not been profaned. That container had only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for a single day. They used this, yet it burned for eight days. It had to be eight days because that’s how long it takes to have new oil pressed and made ready so that the Temple menorah can burn continuously.

So the rebels won. Yay, rebels. Of course, there is a sequel, and the Empire does strike back. Then, after that, there’s a return of the Jedi (the “Jewdi”? As Mel Brooks put it, “May the Schwartz be with you.”)

And so on, back and forth and forth and back through the millennia. This is where the story becomes a test case for letting go of our own opinions -- because in the Jewish civil war of almost 2200 years ago, there weren’t good guys and bad guys. There were just people trying to make their way as best they could. Both sides represented some qualities we can admire, and both sides were sometimes unskillful in their strategies.

On the one hand, we can identify with a rebel faction fighting against an empire that had slaughtered so many of its people. Just as in “Star Wars,” we cheer for the rebels, the country bumpkins who hold to an older and mystical religion. Yay for them.

On the other hand, we can also identify with open-ness to new ideas, to learning, to urban and urbane adaptability. If I were to sum up my philosophy of religion in six words, they would be: “It’s a metaphor. Go with it.” I identify with people who like to read Plato, and who are inspired by Greek ideas of democracy as opposed to the patriarchal and priestly rule of the Jewish traditionalists. (Not that the Seleucid Empire was very democratic, but they brought Greek thought that planted seeds of democratic hope.)

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This is part 2 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 1: Hanukkah History
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas

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