18 Days To Go: Hanukkah as a Cautionary Tale

As a columnist, I know that David Brooks would prefer that I not start this post with his conclusion. When you craft a column, you live in the proud fantasy that the only proper way to tell the story you told is in the precise chronology that you told it. Bringing the conclusion to the beginning of the story simply won’t do. My apologies to Mr. Brooks, but I hope his provocative final paragraphs will entice you to read the whole thing, if only to see how he gets there:

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.  

I don’t know enough about theology to evaluate Brooks’s interpretation, but I’ve read enough of his work to know that his is always a worthwhile, intellectually honest viewpoint. If you want to use this Christmas to explore more of the history behind the religious mythology, my favorite theologian is Elaine Pagels, particularly her books Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity and The Origin of Satan: How the Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

One of the sadder reminders of Christmas is how few religious believers really understand the history of their faith or the controversial development of their doctrine. If you celebrate a religion this holiday season, make it your business to think deeply about these issues.