Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2015

Hanukkah as Game of Thrones

The Hanukkah story of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded is not for children. The aftermath of the overthrow of the Seleucid overlords is for grown-ups, a history of empire, guerilla wars, massacres, alliances made and betrayed, power marriages, expansionism, hegemony, and subjugation. And of course faith—the right kind, the wrong kind, and none at all.

It is the sort of story that belongs in Game of Thrones. You won’t see that series on HBO. We want simple tales of faith and miracles, for ourselves and especially for the kids. And why not? In troubled times and a troubled world, no one can begrudge any injection of light or miracles we can find or conjure up.

For a summary of this history, see this from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: A Brief History of a Violent Epoch: Judas Maccabeus’ death would mark the end of the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks – and the start of the extremely unstable Hasmonean dynasty.

Here is a chart that outlines the chronology of the Hasmonean Dynasty:

Hasmonean Dynasty

Hanukkah has never been a major Jewish religious holiday, not on a par with Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and the rest. The events celebrated on Hanukkah do not appear in the Jewish bible. The canon of the Tanakh was closed before the Books of Maccabees could be included. Some of those books, though, can be found in Christian versions of the Old Testament.

Hanukkah was elevated, especially in America, as a seasonal companion to Christmas, for Jews living in decidedly Christian cultures. For a complete treatment of this phenomenon, see the book Hanukkah in America: A History.

The comparison to Christmas does suggest why we don’t have an epic series devoted to the Maccabees and their historical legacy.

The Christmas story has an even bigger and more significant and spectacular sequel. The newly born Jesus grows up to become the foundation of the faith and one of the great teachers in world history. The next part of his mission is told in the story of Easter. Sequels don’t get any bigger, clearer or cleaner than that.

The historical follow-up to the story of the Maccabees is more equivocal. It puts that era in Jewish history in a very real, human, political light that may clash with the simple idealized version of candles and dreidels.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t light the candles, eat the latkes, spin the dreidels, and commemorate the victory of God’s rule over the rule of the less godly. It’s just that sometime during the holiday, we might leave behind childish things and look at the history with eyes open. Not because it takes away from the holiday, but because it adds to it a fuller sense and understanding.

And because for two millennia, the exact same complexity has been unfolding in the exact same place. Not a children’s game. More like Game of Thrones. Only much more real.

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What’s in a Name: War with Daesh aka ISIS, ISIL, IS

More than a year ago, I posted twice about the different names being used at the highest levels for the current and very evil movement in the Middle East (here and here).

Rather than clearing that matter up, a new name has just been added to the list: Daesh.

The name Daesh, according to France24, is a “loose acronym” for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham). The name is commonly used by enemies of ISIS, and it also has many negative undertones, as Daesh sounds similar to the Arabic words Daes (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and Dahes (“one who sows discord”).

I first heard this new name watching the British House of Commons debate the U.K. commitment to the fight. Prime Minister David Cameron kept referring to “Daesh…Daesh”, and it became clear from the context that he was talking about ISIS/ISIL/IS. One MP thanked him for the new vocabulary, pointing out that the BBC had not yet agreed to use the new correct terminology.

This issue of a pathological movement to establish a new Muslim caliphate is a very serious matter. Especially as it involves the possibility not only of more horrific violence, but of the engagement of many nations—including the U.S.—in that fight.

But there is something just slightly ridiculous about world leaders sitting around a table, each one using a different name for the enemy (we now have seven, if you count the full names and the acronyms). Given what happened in Parliament, it is possible to envision such high level global arguments about what to call the enemy and why.

One thing we know from history. If you are having trouble agreeing on the tiniest details, such as the shape of a negotiating table, the chances of reaching some sort of sane, enlightened, and hopefully effective outcome are not that great.

So whatever else, let us plead with politicians around the world, and the media who cover them, to settle on one name. Before somebody comes up with yet another one.

Life Out of Balance

“A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality.”
– Elias Canetti

The latest reality is a mass shooting in San Bernardino. Ridiculous people have a chance to become the most powerful leader in the world—and insist on tormenting us along the way. Then there was Chicago. And Paris. And on and on.

The world and our lives are not just one thing or one way. They are all directions and colors, in and out of our control. As simplistic as it seems, what we aim for is balance. That might take time, and under some circumstances, such as times of war or grievous loss, maybe a long time. But over time, balance is our aspiration.

Whatever your personal situation—and that is what matters most—our greater social and public life is out of balance. This isn’t the same as things being either mostly good or mostly bad. That, as noted, is the way things always are at any given moment.

What we need is not a singular center point, which is what so many traditions and ideologies peddle as an answer. If anything, running to “the one answer” can actually add to the imbalance. Instead, what we need is to have a sense of a center being available and possible. Because that goes beyond the acknowledgment that life is out of balance (most of us agree on that) to an earnest search for balance. The power of the search is not that you find a center point, but that you are active in turning towards the things that enhance balance, and away from those that don’t.