The dark side of Chanukah

Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judean clan in the 2nd century B.C.E. led an uprising against Greek-influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath that have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. and the complete defeat (although annihilation would be a better description) of the Hellenizers 22 years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnarch and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.

Simon was succeeded by his able and fervent son John Hyrcanus, who expanded the realm and remained faithful to the example laid down by his father and uncles. It was during the reign of his grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (104 B.C.E.-76 B.C.E.), however, that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper-class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshippers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war that resulted in 50,000 more Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.

After the death of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judea for another 40 years — in and out of civil war — until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 B.C.E.-4 B.C.E.), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.

The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek-inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.

Ancient Judea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to learn from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country that formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure that places 60 percent of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1 percent of its population and a poverty level that hovers around 33 percent, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza, evicted from their homes in 2005, is yet another sad example of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect for and protection of Jewish life, property and dignity.

It is important to remember that men can never predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains — why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judea within such a relatively short period of time? Given our current national challenges, this Chanukah our thoughts should be firmly on that question, as much as on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2,000 years ago.

Avi Davis is the Executive Director and Senior Fellow of the American Freedom Alliance.

Amalek Within


What is the origin of evil? Or, more precisely, why do people do evil things?

We Jews often pose these questions in terms of biblical narratives. Torah is understood as the soul’s code of the Jewish people; its characters, images and events are not just historical, they are archetypal. They stand for events in our own inner lives.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat in which we remember tribe of Amalek, the nemesis of Jewish people. Amalek is described in Bible as attacking the people of Israel at weak places and at weak moments. In the Midrash (rabbinic commentaries on biblical narratives), Amelek’s hatred and murderous violence is plumbed more deeply. Amalek becomes a symbol for that destructive and rapacious hostility from which our world suffers so deeply.

Whence Amalek? We find in the book of Genesis that Amalek, the progenitor of the tribe, is the grandson of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob. Most Jewish biblical commentators have a fairly negative view of Esau; they say his reconciliation with his brother Jacob is insincere. I disagree. Even though Jacob stole Esau’s birthright through trickery of their father Isaac, Esau forgave him, mostly because of two things. First, Esau came to realize that his being the older brother was, in a way, an accident. It was God’s intent that Jacob receives the mantle of leadership. Rebecca, their mother, knew this, as did Jacob. Isaac remained blind to this fact, so Rebecca and Jacob had to act. Those without power often have to resort to illicit means to right a wrong.

Second, when Jacob went off to Padam Aram for 20 years, fleeing from his brother Esau’s anger, Esau stayed behind. I would hold that those 20 years with his parents, especially his mother Rebecca, helped him overcome his anger. He let go of the anger and resentment. Esau later had his own son, Eliphaz. Eliphaz had a proper wife, and also a concubine, named Timna. The son of Eliphaz and Timna is Amalek.

Amalek was twice dispossessed. He was a descendant of Esau, of whom one might say, incorrectly, was dispossessed by Jacob. And then, he was the lower-order son of Eliphaz, the son of a concubine. As we do Midrash on Amalek, we can imagine his cursing his fate, being robbed of stature and blessing that he thought rightfully belonged to him. That kind of resentment and anger usually finds a fetish, on object, person or people that is artificially infused with some kind of power or status. Creating an emotional fetish allows a certain kind of thinking to stay fixed in place.

In our Midrash, Amalek looks at the children of Israel/Jacob, and he says to his children, “Everything they have belongs to us. They stole it from us. The world will only be right when we destroy them.”

Just as love can orient a life, so can hatred. Animosity, resentment and hostility can become organizing principles for our lives.

Amalek hates Israel, and does not rest until Israel is destroyed. Amalek is impervious to reason, because his hatred is at the core of his being. He reasons from that hatred; he will not allow it to be talked away. Amalek is petrified.

Amalek roams the world today, and roams around in each one of us. Senses of entitlement and resentment are typical feeding grounds. On a political level, when I think of Islamic extremist hatred of America and Israel, I see Amalek at work. Those who know Arab and Islamic culture well, know of the possible insult to the Arab sense of self that the West, symbolized by America, has inflicted, simply by achieving technological and military supremacy. Many, perhaps even most, Arabs and Muslims see aspects of America (our democracy, our freedoms, our prosperity) as something to emulate. Others see it us something to hate and destroy, and they will stop at nothing to inflict that destruction, not because of what we have done or not done to them, but because of who we are.

There are many Palestinians and their supporters who seem to ready to make peace with Israel, who have resigned themselves, admittedly unhappily, to the inevitability of a two-state solution. Others remain intractably opposed, because the hatred of Israel and Jews is an organizing principle of their lives. To allow Israel to live is, for them, spiritual death.

And now to us. Many of us carry within us resentments, angers, senses of unfulfilled entitlement to some status or regard that infect our thinking and color our emotions. We can’t imagine letting go of some perceived (or real) injustice, because some part of our lives has learned to thrive, to take meaning, from that sense of having been wronged. For us, too, resentment and anger can be organizing principles of aspects of our lives. True, Judaism teaches us, rightly, to hate and fight evil. But most of what we are angry about is not evil. Most of us are angry about the messiness of life lived with other people, imperfect just like we are.

We are taught in the Bible to blot out any vestige of Amalek. Spiritually, we are commanded to blot out the Amalek that operates in our thoughts and emotions. Where anger and hatred, resentment and hostility reside, God is pushed out.

Most of us rarely do evil things from that Amalek within. We have well developed senses of morals, or at least prudence, that stops us. But the Amalek within gnaws away at us, sapping our capacity for joy and wholeness.

The Hebrew month Adar is a time for maximizing joy. We increase the joy in life as we blot out our habits of anger and resentment. Let the joy increase!

Mordecai Finley is rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and is provost at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.