Taking Sides on Hanukkah

I often wonder what group I would have belonged to when people were being asked to stand up and be counted. Was I ready to take on Antiochus and his troops or support him? Would I have thought that the Maccabees were religious zealots and aligned myself instead with those historically maligned Hellenizers?

READ: What You Need to Know About the Hanukkah Story

Last week, I attended a wonderful lecture about the meaning of revelation in the Rabbinic mind. The talk began with a brief section from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics. Wittgenstein (1889-1951), considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century and  the most important since Kant, devoted his work to understanding the logic of language. Already, you know this was an upscale, ambitious talk. The point being made was that words, like “beautiful,” do not have an abstract meaning in isolation. Instead, their sense emerges from how they are used by people when they describe things and events. Similarly, the lecturer tried to imply that the meaning of Torah is not a pristine truth but rather something that emerges from how people interpret it. Four Talmudic stories were presented that indicated that the Rabbis thought that there was a correct and incorrect way to interpret Torah, something that would not seem plausible if the Torah is a fixed truth.

To be sure, the lecture was tightly organized, thought provoking, and stimulating. But I think the thrust of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy was not presented in its full scope. The way that Wittgenstein expressed the emergence of meaning of words through usage was with the term, “language games.” In any group of people, communication can occur as long as the members of the group understand and accept the rules defining the meaning and interplay between words and gestures. There is no intrinsic merit of one language game versus another as long as the community of users accepts and abides by the shared procedures for communication.  They each create a consistent system of meaning and what Wittgenstein referred to as “a form of life.” If the lecturer was right, that Wittgenstein’s philosophy has something to say about Torah, and I think he was, this suggests that the words of the Torah get their meaning from the language game played by each community. All around us we see as many ways to be Torah-true Jews as there are groups of traditional Jews. But, there is no schism and no fault lines within Judaism. Instead, there are different groups living in different contexts that have chosen to follow different rules in reading and articulating the meaning of the words of the Torah. Tamar Ross has cogently expressed this idea in her book Expanding the Palace of the Torah in which she develops a “cumulativist” view of revelation and creates space for feminism within Orthodoxy.

Amazingly, I think this message is especially apt during the season of Hanukkah. After mulling over the lecture I attended, I want to think that the group that took on the Greeks was a varied one. It was not only a group of right-wing ideologues anxious to turn their back on science and philosophy and return to the good old days. There may have been some among them who thought that way, but I suggest that there may have been others who sought religious freedom in a more open way. They simply could not abide with life in a society that could not tolerate, let alone respect, their dedication to an ancestral worship and lifestyle. There may have been some proto-JOFA women and men who joined Judah Maccabee because they did not take well to the Aristotelian view of women. They may have been pushing for more inclusive forms of worship, even Maccabean feminism. Who knows? But I think there probably was a place for me in the opposition to Antiochus.

I suspect the image of the rebels has been appropriated by nationalists and religious traditionalists for their own purposes over the last two millennia. These groups have tried to present the Maccabees as a single homogeneous group, unified in thought and practice as they confronted the Greeks. Instead, I want to imagine that there were many language games being spoken among the rebels. What united them was an unwavering belief in the divine origin of the Torah and its continued viability in the world that they lived in. I want to think it was the variety of groups and the diversity of their voices that joined together that ultimately culminated in their victory over the Greeks. This may be a useful model to ponder as we confront the intensifying religious wars of our days, from within the Jewish community and from outside our covenantal borders.

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