Thoughts on Judaism

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hanukah - a Fight for Tradition

I saw this post, from, Jewish Philospher, the guy who is either the scariest maniac in the frum world or its most angry parody writer. When you get past the base ridiculousness of the logic, the argument is actually made frequently in the frum world. It proposes that Orthodox Judaism is unchanged from ancient times until now. Judah Macabee would be perfectly at home in our synagogue liturgy and religious laws and customs.

The truth is, though, that the Hashmonai would be totally bewildered if he walked into a synagogue today. Tefilin might be familiar to him and Talis as well. However, he would wonder why we take them off after prayer. He would wonder at the lack of blue tzitzis. He might be familiar with Tanach. And there it ends. The Talmud as codified today would be unknown to him. The liturgy or the three davening a day regime would be unfamiliar. He would wonder at the lack of karbanos, until someone explained the logic to him that davening is like karbanos. He might or might not be familiar with Assyrian letters, but not as familiar as we are, since that is all we learn in our schools. Even Israeli pronunciation would be incomprehensible to him. Yiddish would draw a dumbfounded look, no doubt.

Hanukah, itself, would be completely alien to him. Latkes, sufganiot, dreidels would be unknown. The concept of lighting the menorah, adding one for each night for each person, and related halacha would be unknown. He might have an idea of lighting candles in general. The legend of the single flask that they found in the Temple with the seal of the Kohen Gadol would likely be unknown to him. It first appears in Talmud, 600 years later. It does not appear in Ktuvim Acharonim. To boot, the way we keep kosher, the way we keep Yamim Tovim, Sukos, Pesach, Yom Kippur would all be completely unfamiliar to him. Certainly, our method of keeping Nidah laws would make no sense whatsoever.

None of this is based modern scholarship. Every bit is based on the fact that the Talmud changed the religion, and he lived long before the Talmud, in the time of the Zugim. Not to mention, our current laws and theoloogy are largely based on modern kabalah, which did not come about for another 1500 years after his time. That is why many Rishonim sound like they could not into modern Yeshivas, because of their variant views of theology.

This JP post is fairly tame. But the concept that Judaism is unchanged for thousands of years is just a plain distortion of the truth.

Note: I will definitely strangle the next person who tells my children that the enemy in Chanukah was "the Greeks". We, in the US of 2008, are not "British", and the Syrians were not "Greeks". They were descendants of a helenistic empire, but with very distinct customs, language (dialectic Greek), and new mixtures of nations and populations, that were not Greek, Bactrian or Persian.


  • I don't think you are correct on the Greek thing. Hellenistic culture certainly incorporated many of the values of older Athenian or Homeric culture, values that were anathema to chasidim, perushim and ultimately the rabbis. The Greek spoken, Koine Greek was a close enough variant of the more archaic versions of Greek.

    By Blogger evanstonjew, at 12:58 PM  

  • In the US today, we speak a variant of British English, but we are not British, or more generally European. We certainly are far different politically and culturally than the England from which our nation descended and from that nation today. Many of us descended not from British, or Europeans, but from Africa, far Eastern countries, and they have changed the culture and the mix as well. As Dr. Franklin put it so seccintly, that americans are "Rougher, simpler; more violent, more enterprising; less refined. We're a new nationality. We require a new nation. " And to top off, we have gone our separate ways for 200+ years.

    I argue that the Seleucids were the same. The integration of Judea in their empire speaks to that, the personal hubris of Antiochus IV not withstanding. They spoke a variant of Greek as we speak a variant of English. They descended from the Macedonian kingdom, as we did from the British kingdom. But we are not British, and the Seleucids were not "Greeks".

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 5:38 PM  

  • What makes you think the prayers have changed very much? Daniel prayed three times a day toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). Shma is from the Torah. The format of the Shemoneh Esreh preceded the Hanukah period. The Psalms we recite in Pesukai deZimra were surely known to the Macabees. We do not bring sacrifices because we have no Temple, as the Macabees also didn't have temporarily.

    In any case: The text of the Torah scroll has never changed. The beliefs of Jews have never changed. Jewish practices change according to circumstances and the guidance of Torah scholars. No one has ever claimed otherwise.

    By Blogger jewish philosopher, at 5:59 PM  

  • Daniel's regimen was not necessarily what all Jew's did at any time, and there are arguments in the Gemora itself that discuss the davening. I already conceded that he knew Tanach, including Tehilim, but the pesukei d'zimra, as p'sukei d'zimra were probably not something tht he did daily. The argument for davening in place of karbanos was instituted until the destruction of the Temple. Before that , teg-teglicher Judaism was completely different than it is today, as I pointed out.

    the irony is that all of the stuff that makes Chanuka into Chanuka for us, was completely unknown to him, including the legend of the miracle of oil. It would be amazing to me that such a miracle was not referenced anywhere before the Gemora, especially if it were the entire reason behind the eight day festival. Everything else about the holiday would be foreign to him, unlike with Mordechai and Ester, where they actually instituted the minhagim.

    Certainly, the way we keep kashrus, nidah, yamim tovim, the kabala devotion to "holiness" of mitzvos etc. were foreign to him as well. Some of the theology of today, which is based on kabala and modern syncratism, examples of which you can find on this blog, would have been strange or even objectionable to him.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:48 PM  

  • The Macabees and the modern day Orthodox Jew both possess the Torah and believe in it's divine origin. Both observe as much of it as possible under their circumstances. There is continuity. The beliefs of the ancient Greeks, in the Olympian pantheon and in Aristotle, have long ago died out.

    We have won. We are alive. They are dead. The same will be true of the present conflict between Judaism and atheism. Future centuries will look back at evolution and wonder "what were those idiots thinking?"

    By Blogger jewish philosopher, at 5:54 AM  

  • RebelJew;

    Hi! This is an outstanding post. Forgive me as I did not know that you had a blog until now. I will try to visit you regularly...

    I want to mention a couple of points. First, I have read the books of Maccabees. It is interesting that these two books were almost incorporated into the Tenakh and were excluded after some wranglings.

    Yet the Books of Maccabees, speaking almost first hand of the goings on during Hanukkah, DO NOT AT ALL mention the "miracle" of oil. As you point out, the first inkling of a miracle occurs in the Talmud over 500 years after the fact! Does this not sound a little more than a little odd?

    Second, suppose that the miracle indeed happened. Suppose that the lights of a candle lasted 8 instead of 1 day. So what? What is the big deal? What would have happened if the candles briefly flickered out? Remember that in the same time as the supposed "miracle", hogs were being slaughtered in the Beth Hamigdash! Hashem could not stop pigs in the Holy Temple, but he saw to it that candles lasted 8 days?

    This would be akin to, say, Moshe Dayan's cell phone battery lasting 8 hours instead of 1 hour during the 6 day war (yes I know they did not have cell phones then but anachronisms abound in the Torah also)! Imagine 500 years from now the Orthodox Jews celebrating the war because the cell phone lasted longer than it should have! Every Jew would have to make a call every day for 6 days!

    Does it sound absurd? Sure. But so does the commemoration of Hanukkah if the celebration is of a minor miracle for which there is no evidence in the first place!

    By Blogger badrabbi, at 1:32 PM  

  • Future centuries will look back at evolution and wonder "what were those idiots thinking?"

    I agree. It will be relegated to the level of the "germ theory of disease", the "theory of relativity" and the theory of gravity. After all, they are only theories.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:55 PM  

  • Bad

    Your case is overstated. No one said that the "found oil" legend was the ONLY reason for Hanukah. A celebration was probably instituted by the Hashmonaim themselves. Its form definitely changed over the years as apocryphal reasons were added.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:58 PM  

  • Rebel;

    I agree that the Macabees instituted the commemoration of the military victory. However, this secular celebration was co-opted by the rabbis to memorialize a trivial myth.

    The transformation of Chanukah from a secular celebration to a religious holiday is baseless. This is what I am saying. I am also saying that the rabbis' excuse for this transformation is nothing sort of pathetic. I am frankly amazed that the Jewish people, lock-step, have fallen for this canard.

    By Blogger badrabbi, at 6:35 PM  

  • Bad

    I agree that the rabbis transformed the holiday as you say. However, I do not think that they meant ill by it. They often spread teaching through parable. It was safer and more cryptic parables were comprehended only by people "in the know". In this case, I think the rabbis wanted to amplify the victory and establish it permanently, regardless of the enemies of the Macabees. They invented the miracle of oil to tell a story, the oil (all of the intelligensia) was impure (synchretized through Hellenism), there was one pure cruze (the Macabees), and that sustained the menorah light and Temple without help from the establishment Hellenists. Little wonder why they wanted to say this in parable.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 9:27 PM  

  • I would add that the Hasmonai reputation did not fare well in the Talmud, a testament to the prescience of the rabbis who established the holiday.

    This enmity is ascribed to later happenings, but politics rarely changes that much over time. You tend to amplify the misdeeds on the other side and minimize those on your side.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 9:31 PM  

  • The trouble, RebelJew, is that the Talmud, the source of the Chanukah holiday miracle, is sold to us as the "oral Torah". We are told that contents of the Talmud are just as holy as the written Torah. Now, both you and I agree that the Chanukah miracle is concocted. Set aside whether the rabbis meant well or not when they invented this fairy tale, the issue is that this "holy document" has in effect been defiled by this obvious falsehood.

    If you find a chunk of ham in a pot of soup, a rabbi would advise discarding the soup. What do we do with the Talmud now that we have found obvious falsehoods in it?

    By Blogger badrabbi, at 1:49 AM  

  • Bad analogy. The reason we would chuck out the soup is that we cannot fully remove the ham and all of its offshoots. The soup becomes a single entity through cooking.

    If we had dozens of objects, apparently cookies, and I find one that is not edible in any way, that does not mean that none of the others are edible.

    The Talmud is more the plate of cookies than the soup. The fact that many rabbis and yeshivas sell it as soup is a problem, but even the Talmud itself does not claim to be so. It is admittedly pastiche over centuries, the forensic efforts of later rabbis to ascertain the actual "oral law", not the oral law itself. Hence, it does not claim fundamental infallibility. That later ignoramuses(ignorami?) claim that for the Talmud indicates that they either do not understand how to learn Gemora or that they are trying to condescend to, (or worse, deceive) their followers, to keep them from thinking critically.

    The lack of critical thinking in a philosophy based almost entirely on critical thinking is one of the most interesting and ironic things about Judaism.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:54 AM  

  • I've heard that Josephus talks about "The Festival of Lights". One theory is that he had heard about this "miracle" but perhaps did not believe it himself, so referred to Chanukah by a more parve name. I think some more detailed scholarship is needed here before just jumping off and claiming that the Chanukah miracle was unheard of until the final redaction of the Talmud. The Talmud records many things that happened long before the final editing of the Talmud.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:51 PM  

  • I am new to this blog but I will jump right in. I find this whole debate perplexing. There seems to be a lot of debate about truth and fact and other things that have no relevance to channukah or anything Jewish. There are many historical and philosophical reasons why the holiday of channukah was transformed by the talmudic sages, not the least of which was that the "wonderful" Hasmonean dynasty was over and the temple destroyed. What was considered a miraculous victory for the Jews for a few hundred years turned out to be not so great. The apocryphal story in the talmud about the oil captures what the tamludic sages thought was the essential message of the channukah story that was still important and worth a celebration. The profound theological and religious messages that sometimes light pushes out dark, good overcomes evil, and miracles can happen if you have faith. Is the story of the oil historically verifiable and factual? Of course not. Does that make it untrue? absolutely not. Do I even think the author of the story intended for people to think it is historical? who knows. It is like asking if the Greeks thought their legends of the mythological gods were historically true. The modern sense of what is historical is very different from what the ancients thought. So those of you who equate truth with historical fact need to read Maimonides' quide to the perplexed. Stories can be "true" and not history. So we should be surprised if anything in the Talmud is historically accurate because that was not its purpose. Its purpose was to create a model of behavior that transform everyday actions into acts of devotion to God. That is why the Talmud is studied by religious Jews.
    As an aside, this same argument can be made of every Jewish Holiday that has no historical basis whatsoever. Did Maimonides keep the Sabbath because he thought the world was actually created in six days and he was commemorating an historical event? Did any of our greatest sages?

    As a final note, historically speaking, the enemy in the story of channukah was actually the Hellenizing Jews and the influence of the Greek culture. Antiochus epiphanes only began the war to quell the civil war among the Hellenists and the Chasidim (not to be confused with the later Chasidic movement). Go read your history books.

    By Blogger John, at 12:14 AM  

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