Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2011

A festival of lights–or blood?

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm


Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.



  1. I agree with you. I’m a Christian but I find the genocidal and sectarian parts of the Old Testament deeply troubling and not very explainable. In practice Christians have learned to live with this by reading around these parts and they treat many of those parts as “dead letters”. But there are many positive and inspiring “living letters” in there too. I don’t think any world view is internally consistent, probably not even Marxism 🙂

    Comment by uair01 — December 26, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  2. There was an article on the same thing in Slate the other day, which I’m too lazy to find (the article, not the day). If I’m not mistaken, the ultra-orthodox don’t celebrate Hanukkah, what with it being from the Apocrypha and all. Doesn’t necessarily make them any less nationalistic, though.

    Comment by godoggo — December 26, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  3. I’d re-post this article if I wasn’t afraid of being labeled anti-semitic. They seemed to have left a little bit out of the Rugrats Chanukkah Special.

    Comment by Rob — December 26, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  4. This same author also has a great article, linked to within this one, on the implicit conservatism of the Christian message. As one who has always held that a left-wing or at least liberal world view was the easiest to tease from the gospels, I found it rather thought provoking.

    Comment by Rob — December 26, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

  5. And as for why a minor, historically-conservative holiday would be celebrated mainly by more assimilated, less religious Jews with little knowledge or interest in the history, another reason is obviously that it functions as “Jewish Christmas,” hence Hanukkah gifts and whatnot.

    Comment by godoggo — December 26, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

  6. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation.

    The Hellenistic world was expanded beyond the borders of Greece only through means totally opposite of this, i.e. Alexander’s murder-spree-by-divine-right.
    The social aspect most notable about Greece itself, even before Alexander, is slavery.
    Weren’t Hellenized Jews just aping the ideals of the rich and powerful of the world? Like drinking colonics because celebrities do it? Perhaps the modern secular person, Jew or otherwise, finds Hellenized Jews appealing because we believe that we know precisely what Judaism was back then – a mirror we hold up to our religious upbringing and other things we have since rejected.

    I think it’s a bit more complicated. Unlike the aristocratic Greek philosophers, the source of wisdom in Jewish society were the socially conscious prophets who scolded kings or entire upper classes for their failure to uphold justice.
    Maybe the Hellenized faction should have won, I really have no idea. But I’m just wondering if Hellenistic Reason and society is really something better.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — December 26, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  7. These days it’s just a general celebration of Jewish faith and culture. Nothing to worry about.

    Comment by Ralph — December 26, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

  8. “These days it’s just a general celebration of Jewish faith and culture. Nothing to worry about.”

    Actually, within Israel you do have a growing mass of religious crackpots who are very close to the center of power.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 27, 2011 @ 1:00 am

  9. As much as I despise the concept of theocracy, every group of people have the right to choose how they are to express themselves culturally and how they are to govern themselves, and this wikipedia article paints a slightly more sympathetic portrait of the Maccabee rebellion.


    Maybe I jumped on the anti-Maccabee bandwagon a bit hastily, although I still stand by Myerson’s article about the sermon on the mount.


    Comment by Rob — December 27, 2011 @ 1:18 am

  10. “As much as I despise the concept of theocracy, every group of people have the right to choose how they are to express themselves culturally and how they are to govern themselves”

    Sure, but a state which is funded by the USA to a tune of 3.5+ billion annually deserves special scrutiny. If Israel can get off the dole then it’s religious nutbars will become a more private affair.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 27, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  11. Fine, but the point is that those fanatics likely don’t even celebrate Hanukkah and the people who do probably have no idea what it’s about; hence the article is intended to educate them. Also, I realize the article makes most of the points I made above, so never mind. Also that Hitchens article is pretty funny.

    Comment by godoggo — December 27, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  12. Must be his Jewish genes.

    Comment by godoggo — December 27, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  13. It’s true that the story of Hanukkah is not found in the Torah, Nevi’im or Kethuvim.

    It’s a minor festival like Purim and I agree, as most of local Rabbi’s do, that in America it’s significance is because it usually falls close to Christmas (depending on the Jewish calendar) and that it involves gift giving.

    As far as the violent component, as another poster indicated, there is violence in the Bible as well as injustices, sexism and slavery too.

    But playing Devil’s advocate, the times were much different as was the world when the Bible was penned.

    Heck I admit I have a menorah, light the candles and play dreidel for gelt.

    I celebrate Jewish holidays in memory of my great-grandparents.

    It’s out of respect more than for philosophical reasons.

    Nobody knows for sure if there is a God or an Olam Habah for that matter.

    You just live your life the best you can.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 27, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  14. Here in Cuba I’ve also had some occasion to think a bit differently about Channukah. It’s fascinating how differently people take different things, depending on time and place.

    Here in Havana the Festival of Lights had quite a celebration two nights ago at the Patronato, the main Askenazi synagogue here in the Cuban capital. Alas I wasn’t able to attend a similar festival at the Sephardic synagogue, but a few notes here about the Askenazi one.

    Perhaps 400 people attend, including perhaps fifty Jewish-American visitors from the United States. There was a long program consisting almost entirely of dances by different age groups of children. A video presentation including some on the history of the Cuban Jewish community took was presented, and one main speaker took perhaps ten minutes on various religious themes.

    The event began with the singing of the Bayamesa, Cuba’s national anthem, and Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. The Cuban leadership remained standing during this singing. Despite Israel’s attitude toward Cuba – it being the only state on earth to stand with Washington against Cuba at the United Nations, support for Israel as a national entity is clear among Cuba’s small (about 1500) Jewish community.

    The children did a range of abstract, modern and Israeli dances. Some of the groups including children holding the Cuban flag in one hand and the Israeli flag in the other. The sanctuary of both the Ashkenazi and the Separdic synagogues feature Cuban and Israeli flags side-by-side.

    Honored guests at the event, which was filmed for and later reported on Cuban television, included Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly, Abel Prieto, Minister of Culture, Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, and Caridad Diego, who directs the Religious Affairs Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Alarcon was the first asked to light the symbolic candles. He, Leal and Diego were announced with their government titles and also as members of the Cuban Communist Party Central Committee.

    Remarkably, these leading figures simply walked in without any evident security apparatus whatsoever. I know this because I personally spoke for a moment with Alarcon who shook my hand and wished me a Happy Channukah.

    Alarcon and the other male leadership figures all wore yarmulke’s, as I did. It was probably the first time I’d had a yarmulke on since my bar mitzvah, hearly half a century ago.

    My plans are to remain here until March, and will perhaps add some more information on these matter as I get them.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — December 27, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  15. Walter, I was watching a music video on a show called Jewish Life on JTN on Cablevision of Connecticut USA and they had a female singer singing Hava Nagila in Havanna with a latin rythm.

    It was superbly done. Loved it just got up and danced.

    L’chayim comrade!

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 27, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

  16. Sorry for my spelling Havana and rhythm incorrectly in my last post.

    I do this on my Blackberry and my hands get tired lol.


    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 27, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

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