Wednesday, December 12, 2007

(Hebrew) Hammering for Heroes

Quick story before I begin. A few co-workers of mine came to my desk a few days ago and asked the age-old question: "How the hell do you spell 'Hanukkah?' Is with the 'CH' or with the 'H?'" And then (jokingly), "Why can't all the Jews just sit in a big room and decide on the correct spelling?"

Really? I guess they don't know about what happened the last time we Jews all conspired together.* Or maybe they've just never heard the phrase "5 Jews, 7 opinions." I bet a bag of gelt that the Chanukah/Hanukkah/Channukkah discrepancy was all thought of by the same dude.

By now, you've probably heard about the glorious Hanukkah story. The Syrian-Greeks came to Judea with their Hellenistic BS and started to violently oppress the Jews. Many Jews dug the new Greek customs, language, and fashion, (chitons were all the rage back then) and assimilated. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes put a Hellenistic priest in the Temple and began requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. This brought tensions to a boiling point, and under the direction of Mattathias the Hasmonean (Matisyahu!), a revolt against the Hellenistic rule began. Mattathias and his son Judah the Maccabee led a group (let's call them a band) of ultra-nationalistic Jews against the Greek forces, hid out in the hills and caves of the Judean Desert, and ultimately re-captured Mt. Zion back for the Jews.

Upon returning to the Temple, the Maccabees found that very little oil was left undefiled by the Greeks to light the menorah, but the oil actually ended up burning for eight days. A festival was commemorated to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting so long, but not because the small, ragtag Maccabee gang of warrior Jews defeated the large Syrian-Greek army.

Why not? Shouldn't we as Jews celebrate the victory of the weak over the strong? Yes, it's great that the oil lasted long enough for the Maccabees to press new oil for the Temple's menorah so they wouldn't have to use the defiled oil, but had they not won this particular revolt...who knows, Judaism might have ceased to exist. Then we'd have nothing funny to kvetch about.

Which brings us to my central topic (bear with me): who are the true Jewish heroes/heroines? Judaism does not venerate war - or at least its not supposed to - but think about all the iconic figures in the Torah who achieved greatness through battle: Joshua, King David, Deborah (and for that matter, several of the Judges) the Maccabees, and more.

On the flip side, war has always directly or indirectly been our ruin. The Maccabees may have won the first Jewish revolt, but they eventually made an alliance/pact with Rome which later led to Israel's destruction and exile of the Jews from the land. Bar Kochba, the Messianic-ish leader of the Second Jewish Revolt, is despised in some Jewish circles because the Jews lost and the Jews were dispersed into the Galut. Even today...

With the center of Jewish worship destroyed, the focus of Judaism shifted to the synagogue and inward to personal study. The new Jewish heroes were the geniuses of Jewish thought, the Talmudic ethicists, the learned Sages...the original yeshivas bochurs. Jewish power would never again come in the form of the sword and spear, but through prayer and the written word. Then Zionism changed everything.

Think about it. I read a fantastic book a few years called Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, where the author raises some very tough and poignant questions about Jewish manhood. In the book, Salkin claims that in a way, Zionism is the reclamation of Jewish masculinity because of what it embodies at its core: We want our own state so you can't push us around anymore. We will no longer be emasculated. Through a Jewish state, Jews could again become strong and shed the image of the bookish weakling that has plagued the Jewish people for over two millennia. Study and Jewish learning were still of great importance, but so was physical strength in order to defend Israel against its enemies.

So then who are we to venerate as heroes? The strong Jewish warriors who physically defeated our enemies, or the Talmudic Sages of old and rabbis of today who helped to establish accepted Jewish thought and consciousness? Are today's Israeli soldiers who stand on the fronts lines heroes? Or what about our millions of Jewish martyrs who died and could not or did not fight back in the face of unimaginable evil? For such a minor holiday, Hanukkah sure brings up a lot of questions.

There are those who may have died in the pursuit of justice, or who were martyred. There are the nameless and faceless heroes whom history has forgot and time will never remember. I think part of the essence of a Jewish hero is someone who maybe did right by Jews, but more importantly, did right by humankind. Perhaps that could extend from anyone from Moses to King David to Sandy Koufax (might as well throw Shawn Green in that one too) to David Ben-Gurion to Goldberg.

No matter what side of the spectrum you're on, in the end, we cannot forget about the Maccabee legacy. Don't let the light go out.

* Sarcasm

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