Merry Christmas, hold the Hanukkah?

By Razib Khan | December 15, 2012 4:02 pm

It’s that time of the year, and I quite like “the Holidays.” I am, of course, looking forward to my daughter’s first Christmas. Though no one in our family believes in the religious justification for the holiday, it is still an important time of the year, for reasons I have outlined before. But for the first time in 16 years I am going to a “Hanukkah party,” and my feelings about this are a little mixed. The reasons is that the more I heave learned about Hanukkah, the more I’ve become irritated by the fact that this minor Jewish holiday just happens to align well chronologically with Christmas. Most people are aware that as a religious matter for Jews Hanukkah bears no equivalence to what Christmas does for some Christians. But most non-Jews, and even many Jews, know little about the festival aside from the miracle of olive oil.

In The National Post David Frum highlights the salient aspects which concern many Jews. In short, Hanukkah is a  celebration of rebellion, violence, and realpolitik. There is no gain in reducing these ancient events into simple truisms, but a Jewish friend of mine expressed the heart of the matter when she stated that “in antiquity the Jews were al-Qaeda.” In relation to the Maccabee revolt one only needs to follow up on the broad outline of the Wikipedia entry. In a positive light one might frame the Maccabees as religious nationalists, but in a negative light they were reactionary chauvinists.

The story of the Maccabees is the first chapter in the ancient conflict between Jews who were ambivalent toward Hellenization,* and those who were unabashed synthesizers. The Maccabee response to those factions who wished to debase what they viewed as Judaism qua Judaism was to decapitate and disembowel them. The savagery and cultural intolerance of the Seclucid tyrant in this case seems to be easily explained by the rhetoric and behavior of the anti-Hellenists. When it comes to the old dichotomy between Athens or Jerusalem, I clearly sympathize with Athens. More broadly I think most modern Westerners would see their own world view much more in the Hellenists than their enemies, whose victory Hanukkah celebrates.

Ultimately this isn’t going to make me a grinch about Hanukkah. We don’t celebrate the real Hanukkah, we celebrate a Jewish holiday which happens to be near Christmas in timing, and so accommodate what we perceive to be legitimate sensitivities while a good time is had by all. And in an ironic twist the particular party I am attending is dominated by gentiles, with the only Jews present being those who are in relationships with gentiles. So I suppose in the end we make our reasons for this particular season.

* Though some Reform Jews claim to be heirs of Hellenistic Judaism, ultimately only the Pharisees who opposed the Hellenists maintained cultural continuity from that time down to the present. I say ambivalent because traditional Judaism itself has been influenced by Greek thought.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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