Hannukah is the Holiday of Dispute

In part inspired by the polemics that surround Hannukah, this year, for the first time since childhood, I reread the two books of Maccabees. I realized, although few people who pontificate about Hannukah mention it, that our earliest records of this holiday are precisely, inescapably doubled: two texts, written by different authors around the same time, about sixty years after Judah Macabbeus lived, which have opposite perspectives on almost everything that matters to them.

One was originally written in Hebrew; one in Greek. One is pro-Hasmonean propaganda; one seems unexcited by, or even hostile to, the dynasty. One is composed of sober, matter-of-fact political and military history; the other is stuffed full of flashy, divine miracles. One views Seleucid Greece as the natural enemy of the Judeans; the other takes great pains to suggest the problem is just one, deviant ruler. One permits, and perhaps even requires, wars of self-defense to be fought on Shabbat; the other apparently implies the opposite. One makes a point of mocking people who observe God’s law and get killed for it; the other intensely valorizes martyrdom. One shows no interest in the afterlife; the other thinks you cannot understand the morality of our world without it. And so on.

The point, as I take it, is: we know of no version of Hannukah which was not infinitely contentious among the Jews who were celebrating it. There is no pure, original holiday to get back to. “One” holiday was not transformed into “something else” (say, a military holiday into a religious miracle), because the holiday always contained within it multitudes of contradictions. Difference and contest go all the way down. Whatever one thinks of a present-day desire for a singular Jewish community in ideological lockstep, it is not a desire that has anything to do with our earliest records of Hannukah.

Hannukah is truly, as the great Haredi thinker Rav Yitzchak Hutner wrote, the holiday that celebrates dispute and disagreement. Wishing everyone a happily disputatious Hannukah.

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