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Best Discussed Amongst Ourselves

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Another guest post by RebGiraffe. Feel free to share your thoughts. It makes him smile 🙂

David Brooks is a highly respected op-ed columnist for The New York Times, which many regard as THE newspaper of record for our entire nation. Before my friends on the Right get upset, you should know that Mr. Brooks presents articulate conservative views, both in the newspaper and on Public Television’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

A few days ago, The New York Times published a David Brooks column, headlined The Hanukkah Story. It was very-well written,–as his articles typically are–and historically accurate. In a number of points, the article paralleled the email I composed and sent to you last week.

Here are the final five paragraphs of the piece:

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used 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 [Ed. note: also not the traditional Jewish mode of priestly succession].

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. [E.] 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 not 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.

So, if Mr. Brooks’ article reflects history as it really was, why am I so uncomfortable reading it? Probably because the persistent question raised by our immigrant parents or grandparents keeps running through my head:

Is this good or bad for the Jews?

Well, I don’t think it’s good for the Jews! If it had appeared in one of the leading Jewish newspapers, such as The Forward or The Jewish Week, I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with the article. It would likely be one of several takes in the newspaper on the significance of Chanukah, and Jewish readers could decide which take suits them best.

But, The New York Times is read by the whole world, not just by Jews. Just as we are celebrating Chanukah, here comes an article that debunks the holiday. Readers will remember the warts of the heroes herein described far longer than any of their acts of bravery.

Anti-Semitism is alive and well in our world. In polite society, it often masquerades as anti-Zionism. Let me quickly add that I do not believe that the Israeli government–like the American government–is above criticism. However, I do believe that questioning Israel’s right to exist is tantamount to questioning the right of Jews to live in this world.

I am most assuredly NOT saying that David Brooks is an anti-Semite. He is NOT. However, I do fear that this article can contribute to negative feelings about Jews, and that is what makes me uncomfortable.

In spite of the excesses of the Maccabees, particularly when they took control of the country following the revolt, we should recognize that without their rebellion, Judaism would likely have ceased to exist. For that alone, this holiday is worthy of celebration.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy D. permalink
    Wednesday, 16 December 2009 4:55 pm

    Let me say upfront that I dislike David Brooks – many, if not all of his columns contain statements that are generally offensive to me, no matter what the topic, and this column is no different. I don’t see Brooks as an anti-Semite but because he is not a Jew and (judging from the language he uses)doesn’t have any education in Judaism, I see him as someone unfit to comment on the “lesson” of Chanukah. His inference that the Jews and “Sunday school teachers” (and I’m sure he means Christian Sunday school here)have somehow turned the Chanukah story into a “…self-congratulatory morality tale” is offensive and reeks of the sterotypical, ignorant, uneducated rhetoric spewed about Jews for centuries. He might as well have said, “Those sneaky Jews! Let me educate everyone in what Chanukah is REALLY about because they want everyone to believe what a great holiday it is when really, it’s about a corrupt bunch of bearded Jews who were really just ‘…brutal and reactionary.’ ” Brooks use of the terms, “self-congratulatory,” “corrupt, brutal, and reactionary,” and “bearded religious guys” and the overall “message” he seems to want to convey do nothing but illustrate why anti-Semitism remains alive and well and remind me of why I continue to have no respect for Brooks or his trivial musings.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 17 December 2009 10:47 am

      I’m going to see if Rebgiraffe wants to comment before I respond 🙂

  2. Thursday, 17 December 2009 3:22 am

    Good analysis of this article. I have to admit that life in Israel is starting to convince me that Jewish fanatics are roughly the same as fanatics everywhere. On the other hand, these fanatics have kept Judaism alive in the way that moderates wouldn’t have, so… I don’t know.

    Frume Sarah, I know you’re leading HH this week, and I’m not sure if the blog carnival is working. In case it isn’t, I want to submit this post about the different ways Maccabis (in a less frightening form!) pop up in Israeli life: Thanks!

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 17 December 2009 10:46 am

      Maya– the carnival does seem to be working. However, I had already included that post!!! I thought it would give people an interesting perspective into how the word “maccabee” is used in the modern State.

      And yes, you have picked up on the tension between the moderates and the zealots. If we’d all gone Greek…

      I LOVE your blog and read it faithfully!!!

  3. Rebgiraffe permalink
    Thursday, 17 December 2009 8:59 pm

    In response to Nancy: I don’t know if David Brooks is Jewish or not. If he’s not Jewish, I don’t know why he felt it was appropriate for him to debunk the holiday of another religion. If he is Jewish and wanted to submit a critique, what is the reason to do so in The New York Times? I know, that’s his job…but he didn’t have to publish this particular article there. He could have addressed it to Jews in the Jewish press. I do agree with Mr. Brooks that the Chanukah story is often simplified for young children in Religious Schools, but aren’t the holidays/history of all groups made simple for young minds–with the goal of teaching them moral lessons? When they are older, there is time to delve into the complexities that human relations always entail.

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