Rabbi Shafran Writes the NY Times

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shafran1The following letter appears in the New York Times:

To the Editor:

David Brooks is certainly correct that there is “complexity” in the Hanukkah story. But the “battle between theologies” it entailed did not pit “angry bearded” guys against champions of “the power of reason.” It was, rather, the confrontation of an utterly human-centered, amoral worldview and the God-centered convictions of Judaism.

That the casting off of the Seleucid yoke involved violence by the oppressed Jews is a truism. But bloodshed has attended many rightly venerated stands against oppression, including the one at the birth of our own country. Ideals are not always easily defended.

Reducing the defense of the essential Jewish ideal to an “insurgency campaign,” where “the good guys did horrible things,” is the sort of simplistic revisionism that is, in these deconstructive days, as misleading as it is common.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
New York

Due to requests from several readers, we post the original NY Time sarticle here:

The Hanukkah Story

By David Brooks

Tonight Jewish kids will light the menorah, spin their dreidels and get their presents, but Hanukkah is the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today. It’s a holiday that accurately reflects how politics is, how history is, how life is.

It begins with the spread of Greek culture. Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem.

Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.

Urbane Jews assimilated parts of Greek culture into their own, taking Greek names like Jason, exercising in the gymnasium and prospering within Greek institutions. Not all Jews assimilated. Some resisted quietly. Others fled to the hills. But Jerusalem did well. The Seleucid dynasty, which had political control over the area, was not merely tolerant; it used imperial money to help promote the diverse religions within its sphere.

In 167 B.C., however, the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, issued a series of decrees defiling the temple, confiscating wealth and banning Jewish practice, under penalty of death. It’s unclear why he did this. Some historians believe that extremist Jewish reformers were in control and were hoping to wipe out what they saw as the primitive remnants of their faith. Others believe Antiochus thought the Jews were disloyal fifth columnists in his struggle against the Egyptians and, hence, was hoping to assimilate them into his nation.

Regardless, those who refused to eat pork were killed in an early case of pure religious martyrdom.

As Jeffrey Goldberg, who is writing a book on this period, points out, the Jews were slow to revolt. The cultural pressure on Jewish practice had been mounting; it was only when it hit an insane political level that Jewish traditionalists took up arms. When they did, the first person they killed was a fellow Jew.

In the town of Modin, a Jew who was attempting to perform a sacrifice on a new Greek altar was slaughtered by Mattathias, the old head of a priestly family. Mattathias’s five sons, led by Judah Maccabee, then led an insurgent revolt against the regime.

The Jewish civil war raised questions: Who is a Jew? Who gets to define the right level of observance? It also created a spiritual crisis. This was not a battle between tribes. It was a battle between theologies and threw up all sorts of issues about why bad things happen to faithful believers and what happens in the afterlife – issues that would reverberate in the region for centuries, to epic effect.

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.

Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. @ Chaim

    Liberals are the enemy?

    I suppose I’m both shocked and confused. Shocked that you place people with opposing views on the same level as those who wish to do us harm (of which there are unfortunately too many,) and confused as to why you feel it is appropriate to speak about another Jew – or for that matter, another person – this way.

    We have enough real enemies without the need to fight amongst ourselves.

  2. Re: Icomeanon #4

    “I’m both shocked and confused…”

    Let me educate you. It’s called
    freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
    Orthodox Jews—just as other religious
    Americans—are entitled to express their
    opinions. (In this case, the religious
    viewpoint is excellently presented and
    totally justified.)

    Why be confused? This is an Orthodox
    Jewish website. Logically, that means that
    the material discussed here will harmonize
    with that philosophy.

    Praise the Lord! Happy Chanukah!

  3. Rabbi Shafrin is nit-picking at Brook’s article but is not disputing the main points.

    The fact is that the Chashmonoim did become a very brutal regime, killing everybody even their own family members. They did invite the Romans to control the country for their own selfish interest. Never in history, anywhere, was there so much murders and stealing as there were under the Chashmonoim.

  4. @ Aharon #7

    “Let me educate you. It’s called
    freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
    Orthodox Jews—just as other religious
    Americans—are entitled to express their
    opinions. ”

    That’s exactly my point. Chaim is not allowing free speech. When someone disagrees with his views, he labels them as the enemy! This sort of behavior stifles free speech.

  5. Re: Icomeanon’s Bias #9

    You are against free speech. (Chaim
    wrote: “David Brookes is a wolf in sheep’s
    clothing. He is a full-fledged liberal.”)

    Chaim is entitled to his opinion about
    Brookes and liberals.

    Liberals are destroying this country.
    Liberals support evil sodomy and wish
    to redefine marriage, which is against the

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