Imagining a world without Hanukkah
Detour into science fiction helps illuminate what festival celebrates
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/12/2011 (4000 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Growing up as an avid science fiction reader, I fell in love with a particular sub-genre of the field called “alternate history,” which asks how the world would have changed if some historical event had gone differently.
For example, both Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee and Winston Churchill’s If the South Had Won the Civil War — yes, that Winston Churchill — ask readers to imagine life after the South won the American Civil War.
And Sarban’s The Sound of His Horn, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, and Keith Roberts’ Weihnachtabend explore the world after Hitler and the Axis won the Second World War.
Hundreds of science fiction novels and short stories ask “What if the outcome had been different?” about other crucial moments in history as well.
For example, in Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, the author asks how the world would have changed if the Hebrew exodus from Egypt had ended not in liberation from bondage but in the deaths of Moses and the other Hebrew leaders.
In Silverberg’s alternate history, the Hebrews continue as a sparse slave population in Egypt. They never reach the Promised Land, so there is no ancient Judaea with a capital in Jerusalem whose citizens wage war against Roman authority and whose descendants are scattered throughout the empire as punishment for their rebellion.
The term “Jew” never even arises, because there is never a geopolitical entity called Judaea. Instead, the Hebrews quietly cultivate their particular ethical and theological genius only within their tiny ghetto in Egypt.
Without the dispersal of a captive Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire, Rome’s political and cultural philosophies are neither challenged nor changed in an encounter with the fruits of independent Jewish thought concerning human ethics and morals.
Jewish idealism about the meaning and destiny of humanity — about the need to balance justice and mercy — finds no home. Jewish teachings about the unity of God and of the world disappear, resulting in stagnant scientific development.
The Romans meet no opposition and simply spread their empire, imposing their ideas in the name of the peace of Rome. As Pax Romana embraces all human beings, the human race becomes divided by economic and social class, with everyone except Roman nobility (and the military and bureaucracy serving them) enslaved to the glory of the Roman Imperial families.
Which brings us to another such pivotal moment in history, one celebrated by the Hanukkah festival observed in Jewish homes beginning this year tonight, Dec. 20, and continuing for eight days. The Hanukkah candles are lit to commemorate the victory of Judah Maccabeus and his siblings over the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV.
We may miss the connection between this war and the history of later western religion. What would the world have been like if those small bands of shepherds and townspeople in ancient Judea had not heard the pleas to defend religious freedom spoken by a family of priests from the village of Modin?
What if they had not rebelled against a totalitarian empire, and instead accepted the systematic destruction of their rights to worship as their religion required, to teach about the universe as they understood it, and even to follow dietary commands as instructed by God?
We forget that there once was a time when the ancient kingdom of Judea was a unique spiritual oasis in the midst of the corrupt, warring remnants of Greek culture left by the death of Alexander the Great.
In their struggle to duplicate Alexander the Great’s “world empire,” the competing Ptolemaic and Selucid emperors — based, respectively, in Egypt and in the area now known as Syria — promoted the worst of the Greek ideas, not the best. They advocated a kind of promiscuous polytheism, where any god was as good as no god, but loved best the gods who whimsically played politics and waged war, gods for whom raw military force and murder were the primary tools for managing human beings.
Just as the biblical pharaoh had no room for the god of the enslaved Hebrews, so the Ptolemaic and Selucid Greeks advanced themselves as the earthly manifestation of their gods — and would permit no dissent or uniqueness in thought. All such would-be god-kings in the ancient world yearned for the disappearance of the inconvenient God of the Jews and the destruction of the way of life.
Had the Maccabees lost in their war against the Selucid Greeks, the changes would have been enormous.
Nowadays, whether we are believers or not, we at least can acknowledge that striving for knowledge of God was indispensable in the development of human consciousness. The God of Israel represented a new step in human thinking, the notion of an underlying unity of life and a vision of compassionate community and goodwill for all human beings.
Without the victory of the Maccabees in 167 BCE, the ethical message of the one God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would have disappeared: to perceive the world as a gift to be managed and guarded by humans. Linked to this notion was the belief that God wanted us to become better than we were — without doing harm to others as we tried to achieve our very best. Above all else, we were responsible to each other and accountable to a single God Who believed that all human beings were precious and capable.
If not for the courage of that band of rebels known as the Maccabees, that vision of human diversity as God’s gift — consisting of unique individuals and cultures, and yet connected through shared purposes — might have gone out forever, or at very least been set aside for a long time.
Those ideals found in rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam — including human equality, hope, repentance and salvation, social justice and compassion for the poor, hungry, and vulnerable — would have been buried.
Though rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam may debate about the means for achieving those ideals, we believe that we are all stirred by the same God, who inspired Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed.
The tragedy is that the Syrian Greek tyrant Anthiochus took it upon himself to do what Jean Bodin — the father of modern political science — termed “issuing commands to the human soul.”
The single greatest good that emerged from Hellenistic civilization — namely, the application of reason to the conduct of life and government in this world — was lost after Alexander’s empire collapsed and was replaced by an obsession with control over any competing way of living.
Many years ago, Moshe Kohn, an Israeli journalist, said, “We are here, alive as Jews, because our universalistic beliefs in Judaism did not demand the obliteration of the particularism of others, as demanded by every other universal system of so-called peace and brotherhood with which Judaism had clashed. Our genius, if you will, is not that we are merely alive, but that we are dynamically alive.”
The genius of the Jewish people is that we have patiently learned from other peoples and cultures and come to appreciate that they are each unique and different, and have offered others the insights of our way of life — all without sacrificing our integrity and distinctiveness as a people.
In a world of so many ways of being human, may this season enable us all to see that we are valued and loved for our uniqueness, not for our conformity to someone else’s definition of us.
Judging from the wild diversity of humankind, God seems to delight or find reward in our creativity, which reveals remarkable facets of what it means to be human. We humans are like countless varieties of beautiful flowers in a vast planetary garden.
There is so much to appreciate and celebrate, if we would only use the light of this season to see each other with love and respect.
Lawrence Pinsker is the associate rabbi at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.