Chanukah à la mode

Posted by Barry Strauss under on December 20, 2011

ImageIn the name of enlightenment, the government stepped in. Parents said they were circumcising their infant sons, and thereby carrying out a basic commandment of their God. Doctors said that circumcision improved public health. The government knew better: it was mutilation, plain and simple, and an attack on helpless babies. The practice dated to time immemorial, but now it was time to stop. Circumcision was made illegal. Any parent who defied the new law would be punished.

An elderly gentleman named Matthew called for defiance. The government forged ahead. Police raided the apartment of Matthew’s son Judah, having heard that an infant boy was about to be circumcised. They were right, but they hadn’t counted on resistance. Judah and his brothers Jonathan and Simon fought back and forced the police out. As the news got out, other parents ran to the family’s defense. Before anyone knew it, the government had an uprising on its hands.

This story is fiction. If it seems outlandish, consider that in San Francisco this past year, a ballot issue asked voters to make circumcision a crime punishable by up to a year in jail. A judge invalidated the referendum before it was held, on the grounds that only the state of California, and not localities, could regulate medical procedures. Meanwhile, enlightened observers complained that circumcision was a violation of human freedom.

If this seems outlandish, consider this: Chanukah commemorates something similar. The eight-day festival of lights that Jews around the world are about to celebrate also marks resistance to enlightened opinion. The government of Judea in 167 BCE succeeded in doing what the San Francisco activists failed at: they banned circumcision. And they didn’t stop there. They also banned observance of the Sabbath, proclamation of the new Jewish month, and studying the Torah. They turned the Temple in Jerusalem into a center of pagan worship.

The authorities in Judea – the government of the Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV – did not act merely out of a desire to persecute the Jews. Rather, they wanted to bring the Jews into the modern world and out of what they saw as superstition and barbarism. In this enterprise they had the support of many Jews themselves, “Hellenizers” who gave up traditional customs for up-to-date ways.

The traditionalists took up arms and resisted. The result was the Maccabean revolt, beginning in 167 BCE and succeeding two years later, in 165 BCE. The Maccabees rededicated the temple and a miracle occurred. Although there was only enough oil to light the Temple candelabra (menorah) for one day, it stayed lit for eight days.

The festival of Chanukah commemorates the miracle. “Chanukah” in Hebrew means “dedication,” referring to the re-dedication of the Temple.

Not everyone will believe in the miracle, but then, not everyone believes in God. Then and now, most educated people prefer the dictates of enlightened opinion to the principles of faith. But oppression often comes in the garb of progress. Goodness often seems old-fashioned and backward.

As for me, dear reader, I don’t believe that enlightenment would last a day without a firm foundation on the rock of faith. For all its achievements, human reason alone will never teach us what is right and wrong.

And so, tonight, I will light a candle and say the blessings in deep gratitude for the gift of faith.

Happy Chanukah!

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