Bob Schwartz

Month: November, 2021

Why isn’t the Hanukkah story in the Hebrew Bible?

Wojciech Stattler, Maccabees (1840)

We consider Hanukkah a “minor” Jewish holiday. Unlike major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is no mention of the celebrated events (such as the eight days of oil lamp light) in the Hebrew Bible. However, the books of First and Second Maccabees are historically precise and existed by the time the Jewish biblical canon was established. Yet they were left out of the Hebrew Bible, so the only way to read these books is to find them in Christian Bibles. Why?

In part this is due to the “real” story not fitting well into the rabbinic Judaism that evolved and that for the most part still dominates Jewish life. It is not surprising that a story of revolution, political power plays, Jewish dynastic autocracy, and rejection of divine intervention has been supplanted by a story of light and miracles (especially in a Christmas-intensive society).

As Daniel R. Schwartz writes: “Thus, all in all there is little “Judaism” in this book [First Maccabees]”

More from Daniel R. Schwartz (Professor of Jewish History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha:

The book is clearly meant to convince its readers that the Hasmonean family, particularly Simon and his descendants, should rule Judea. This is made clear both by the structure of the book and by specific passages that proclaim that the Hasmoneans were chosen to rule or had earned the right to rule; the focus on the Simonide line comes through especially at the end of Mattathias’s deathbed speech, in ch 14, and in the book’s conclusion.

The book’s argument that it is the Hasmoneans who brought about the salvation of Israel is based on two main theses. First, foreign rulers are terrible and perfidious, and the Judeans’ neighbors hate them and want to annihilate them (whether they are doing well or doing poorly, that is, always), so the Judeans are in need of such salvation. Second, dependence on God’s providence will not solve anything. The latter thesis is emphasized in several pointed contrasts of the Hasmoneans to Judean pietists:

1. At the very end of ch 1 we read of some pious Jews (not necessarily members of any particular group) who are killed because they refuse to violate Jewish law; immediately thereafter, ch 2 introduces Mattathias and his sons and reports the beginning of their armed rebellion.

2. At 2.29–41 we read of pious Jews who refuse to defend themselves on the sabbath, and so are killed; immediately thereafter we read that Mattathias and his men decided to defend themselves if attacked on the sabbath.

3. At 7.8–16 we read that naïve pietists believe the promise of a Seleucid general and a wicked Jew that they have only peaceful intentions, and they are killed forthwith, while the open-eyed Judas and his men see through the general’s lies.

Since we know, from Qumran and rabbinic literature, that there was plenty of pietistic criticism of the Hasmoneans (although there is no firm basis for identifying the pious mentioned in 1 Maccabees as Qumranites or proto-rabbis in particular), it is easy to understand the book as responding by arguing that piety cannot solve the Jews’ problems in the real world. Correspondingly, the book makes no claims about any miracles or divine intervention helping the Hasmoneans, never refers to “God” or “the Lord,” and, after the first few chapters, has only a few references to prayer or to “Heaven”….

Thus, all in all there is little “Judaism” in this book, and although Flavius Josephus, as a historian, used it extensively (in the twelfth and thirteenth books of his Antiquities, perhaps also in his Jewish War), there is little evidence for acquaintance with the book by Jews in antiquity. The rabbis ignored it altogether, unless Rabbi Akiba was thinking of it, among other books, when he proscribed the reading of “external books” (m. San. 10.1). The book was much used in Christian tradition, especially as providing models for depictions of the crusaders who, in their way, fought for the liberation of the Holy Land. But in Jewish literature prior to the modern period, there is next to nothing to speak of, apart from the medieval Josippon. This is to be expected from a book that was so distant from what would become rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, in the early years of modern Judaic studies, Abraham Geiger argued that the work was a Sadducean work, that is, it reflects the type of Judaism against which Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism arose. Geiger’s argument derived from various points, such as 1 Maccabees’s lack of belief in an afterlife, angels, and providence, denial of which are said by Josephus or other sources to have characterized the Sadducees. Geiger also argued from the fact that our book ends up by justifying John Hyrcanus’s rise to power; Josephus reports that John joined the Sadducees and abolished Pharisaic law. While Geiger’s characterization of the work as Sadducean might nevertheless be too specific (and his characterization of 2 Maccabees as Pharisaic has even less to recommend it), in general Geiger’s assessment was correct. Instead, however, of characterizing 1 Maccabees as Sadducean, it seems more warranted to characterize it as “statist” (as opposed to “diasporic”).

The book should thus be understood as a work bespeaking the point of view of a Jewish state—a state that was, on the one hand, justified by the firm belief that gentiles and their rulers are inveterately hostile, and one that was, on the other hand, made possible by activist and pragmatic heroes who took their fate into their own hands and sought to establish sovereign statehood rather than waiting for God to send a Messiah to do so. As such, it is natural that the book became popular in modern Zionist literature and is a reflection of the degree to which Zionism deviates from diasporan and religious Judaism. To the extent that Zionism, especially since the Holocaust, is based on a lack of trust both in gentiles and in God, 1 Maccabees fits right in.

Copyright © 2020 by Oxford University Press, USA.

144 new Christmas TV movies this season: “What do you know about the royal family of Aldovia?”

Castle (not) in Calpurnia from A Royal Winter

People reports  that there are 144 new Christmas movies scheduled this season on Netflix, Hallmark, Lifetime, etc.

When the Christmas TV movie phenomenon began years ago, it was an occasional holiday thing. Once Hallmark established that it was a crowd pleaser and audience magnet, it expanded its roster and then other channels jumped in.

Like any genre TV, conventional themes and plots are acted by familiar faces. The most extraordinary version combines royalty with the holiday. Often a prince—maybe responsible and a widower, maybe a playboy—falls in love with a commoner in unlikely circumstances.

The line above, “What do you know about the royal family of Aldovia?”, is asked of an aspiring reporter in A Christmas Prince on Netflix. She is flown to Aldovia to cover the possible abdication of the heir to the throne. If you’ve seen this or any of its type, you know the rest.

Do not try to book a flight to Aldovia or Cordinia or Calpurnia or Madelvia. None of these kingdoms exist on real maps. They exist in the sweet world of small obstacles, comfortable lives, whirlwind romanc, and happy endings, all wrapped in the warmth of Christmas.

I won’t say that we need these, that I need these, these few hours away from media that serve up some pretty disagreeable programming, both in the news and in the dark dramas (and in the very dark dramas in the news). But I want these hours away in Aldovia or Cordinia or Calpurnia or Madelvia. You might too.

So it goes: Covid and Slaughterhouse-Five

Dresden 1945

Kurt Vonnegut was a gifted and productive writer. Yet after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, it took him decades to include the experience in a book.

He wrote in the opening pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

 When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.

But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown….

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Vonnegut did write that novel about Dresden, the unforgettable and indescribable Slaughterhouse-Five. In it, he included a sort of mantra, a verbal punctuation, that appears more than a hundred times: So it goes.

When I see reports, or fail to see reports, about the continuing losses in the American war against covid, those words pop up: So it goes.

Dresden was a horror that killed 25,000 people, for no good strategic reason. Covid has killed about a million Americans, many of those deaths preventable through more disciplined public policies and behaviors. So it goes.

So it goes, because it is now obvious that given the differences among Americans in their will to fight the virus, instead of each other, we will be trudging through this mess indefinitely, with victories here, losses there, death and sickness everywhere. And it appears that nothing is going to change that.

So it goes.

Lying and gullibility as a religious problem

Scholar and author Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, has written an introduction to a recent collection of her father’s work, Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God.

Here she writes about his religious view of lying and gullibility in America, a problem that apparently is still with us:  

That our religiosity must be authentic to who we are as individuals is an old Hasidic teaching from Menachem Mendel, the rebbe of Kotzk, about whom my father wrote a two-volume book in Yiddish. The Kotzker rebbe, a complex and highly original thinker, insisted on truth, sincerity, and authenticity and loathed mendacity. My father wrote that book toward the end of his life, during the years he was active against the war in Vietnam. That war made him sick: he was outraged over the lies of American politicians and the callousness of a government killing thousands of innocent civilians. Yet why were Americans deceived by falsehoods of their government? The lies of politicians were abhorrent, but so was the gullibility of Americans. This was a religious problem, my father felt; people can want to be deceived. Do not deceive, the Kotzker rebbe insisted, and that also means do not deceive oneself by being gullible.

“If the sign of life is in your face…”

If the sign of life is in your face
He who responds to it 
Will feel secure and fit 
As when, in a friendly place, 
Sure of hearty care, 
A traveler gladly waits. 
Though it may not taste like food
And he may not see the fare
Or hear a sound of plates, 
How endless it is and how good!

The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu by Witter Bynner

The Tao Te Ching, a foundational text of Taoism, is a very brief book—81 verses—that is one of the most translated and read in the world. And one of the most valuable.

Witter Bynner (1881-1968), a poet and translator, created an English language version in 1944 that is more a poetic interpretation than translation. It was the first version I read though (a dozen more since), and so its elegance has stuck with me for a lifetime.

The image he uses of “the sign of life in your face” does not appear in any other translation of the verse. He took poetic liberties. Yet once you read it, you are sure to look for that sign of life in your face or in the faces you meet.

The wall is not a wall

This appears to be a wall of dirt rock and greenery. Pull back and wait. The ridge is steep but climbable. The sun rises spectacularly over it. The wall is not a wall.

© 2021 Bob Schwartz



the sun yellow
the mountains brown
how is the morning pink

© 2021 Bob Schwartz