Heroes and Villains: A Chanukah Meditation

In the popular imagination, both Jewish and Gentile, the story of Chanukah is the saga of outnumbered but plucky Jews battling the more numerous and nefarious Greeks and their alien culture. In truth, it’s about much more than that.

The Beach Boys released their stylistically innovative single “Good Vibrations” in October 1966 to critical and commercial acclaim. Innocently suggestive lyrics (for 1966, that is!) set against sophisticated harmonics and orchestration created an experience unlike anything in the history of popular music. The Beatles’ haunting “A Day in the Life” (recorded just a few months later, in early 1967) and Queen’s ubiquitous “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1977) would borrow elements from the California group’s masterpiece, pushing the experimental boundaries of pop music even further. Less than a year after releasing “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys put out an equally ambitious but ultimately less successful track, “Heroes and Villains.”

Strange as it sounds, every Chanukah I’m reminded of this serio-comic song. It’s not because the Gottlieb family performs a mean musical round on par with the Beach Boys or the Von Trapp family—far from it. The reason I think of this less famous follow-up to one of the most influential American songs of all time is that the title captures so succinctly the conventional plotline of that festival that has become its own, somewhat misunderstood, American industry.

In the popular imagination, both Jewish and Gentile, the story of Chanukah is the saga of outnumbered but plucky Jews battling the more numerous and nefarious Greeks and their alien culture. It’s presented as a black and white affair of little nuance or complexity. Of course, one need only look to the last century and the twin threats of Nazism and Communism to recall that some civilizational conflicts are as simple as that. But both the historical record and Jewish tradition itself tell a more sophisticated, complex tale.

The Meaning of Chanukah

As chronicled in the biblical Book of Maccabees (which is canonical for Catholics but considered apocryphal for Jews and most Protestants), the battle of Judah Maccabee against the Hellenizers was more like a civil war within the borders of the Holy Land than a war between two nations or empires. This conflict was an internal one: it was Jew versus Jew, not Jew versus Pagan Gentile. A battle between brothers is often more tragic and painful than one in which the enemy is a clearly distinguishable foreigner.

Further, the notion that this was fundamentally a culture clash between Hebraism and Hellenism (a dichotomy made famous in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and a popular motif in Jewish discourse from the First Century CE onwards) doesn’t quite capture the complex nature of the conflict. Importantly, it also clashes with the simple meaning of a prominent Talmudic teaching—a rabbinic gloss on the very first prophecy in the Bible (Genesis 9:27)—that encourages the creativity and beauty of Greek civilization to fruitfully reside within the monotheistic faith of Abraham’s children: “May the Beauty of Japheth/Yefet [the progenitor of the tribes that would eventually form the Greek city-states] dwell in the Tents of Shem [the ancestor of Abraham]” (Megilla 9b).

Instead, I would suggest that the crux of the conflict centered on Greek philosophy’s challenge to the Election of Israel and her distinctive worldview, both expressed by and a consequence of the Torah, her Divine Wisdom. The Jerusalem Talmud gestures in this direction in the following cryptic statement: “The Greeks darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees, forcing the Jews to write on the horn of an ox: ‘We have no portion in the God of Israel’” (Chagiga 11a).

By the time of the Hasmonean Revolt in 167 BCE, most schools of Greek thought had jettisoned the more mythical elements of both the Homeric and pre-Socratic mind, leaving some notion of an Unmoved Mover or a Logos at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being. A Divinity that loved His creatures, let alone a particular people above all else, was simply scandalous. Israel, G-d’s firstborn child, had no place in the worldview of Hellas; this the rationalism of the Greeks could not abide. Hence, the persecution of the traditionalist Jews (both by her enemies without and, especially, her enemies within) took the form of a forced confession: “We have no portion in the God of Israel.”

Interestingly, even confirmed critics of traditional religion like Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens realized the historical significance of the Chanukah story. Had the Maccabees been defeated, glamorous pagan Hellenism would have stomped out the faith in one invisible God and the idea of monotheism might have perished in history. Had the Maccabees lost, civilization as we know it would have been radically altered. The events taking place in Judea less than two centuries later, events that would go on to change the world forever, would have been unimaginable.

Athens and Jerusalem: Profoundly Different Ways of Thinking

There are many ways to parse the perennial conversation between Athens and Jerusalem: Reason and Revelation, Theory and Praxis, Knowledge and Faith, Nature and Love, Philosophy and Law, and more. In the context of Chanukah this year, I’d like to focus on the last antinomy, Philosophy and Law, identifying one more contribution of the Jewish spirit to our contemporary condition.

In his rich new book, Halakha: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Villanova professor Chaim N. Saiman notes a number of ways in which Halakha, especially its Oral Law embodiment in Mishna and Talmud, differed from the forms and substance of Greek Wisdom. “At its most basic level,” Saiman avers, “the conflict between Torah and philosophical inquiry is a conflict over knowledge and its sources,” a divinely revealed source of wisdom and truth over against a purely human enterprise. “But beyond this,” Saiman continues,

is another debate—over the means by which knowledge is processed and transmitted. The Western tradition values structure and systematic thinking . . . Instead, the Talmud offers a profoundly different way of thinking. Its starting point is the mitzvah—God’s call to action—and its core intellectual tool is interpretation . . . In brief, what the Greeks pursued through reflective and speculative philosophy, the rabbis read into, out of, and through, halakha.

The victory of Chanukah paved the way for the enduring legacy of the particular as well as the universal. Thanks to Chanukah, we see that law and narrative, not just theory and philosophy, mitzvah and story, not merely abstraction and contemplation, are legitimate sources of truth, wisdom, and meaning. These are Chanukah ideals worth celebrating in our postmodern world.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.